BUFFALO, N.Y. — The auxiliary locker room is stuffed with Buffalo Sabres jerseys, eight tall stacks totaling nearly 300 altogether, each one awaiting the face of the franchise’s attention.
“You gotta figure half the kids in this city have your autograph by now,” says Rich Jureller, the team’s vice president of community relations.
“I think so,” replies Jack Eichel, grabbing a permanent marker and plopping down near the first pile. “Let’s get this old wrist ready.”
Most NHL autograph sessions take place en masse, teammates crowding around memorabilia tables after practice, scribbling their signatures on a few pucks and calling it a day. Not since goalie Ryan Miller starred here from 2002-03 to ‘13-14, though, have Jureller and his colleagues required an entirely separate space to handle such surplus demands. But that is the appeal of Eichel—22-year-old Sabres captain, electric top-line center and general deliverer of good tidings to this success-starved market. “He’s had such an impact on Buffalo, the city,” defenseman Zach Bogosian said recently. “He’s given a lot of people hope that wasn’t there before.”
As he starts to sign away, Eichel reflects on the first and only NHL jersey that he owned as a kid. It was purchased at a hockey store in downtown Montreal, where Bob Eichel had taken his young son to see the Canadiens host (auspiciously enough) the Buffalo Sabres. Rather than blend with the home crowd at Bell Centre by sporting some blue, blanc et rouge, though, Eichel boldly opted for one of his favorite players at the time, Sidney Crosby, and wore it to the game.
Of course, no one could ever accuse Eichel of indecision. Consider this testimony from his own dad: “He was a weirdo. He was just completely driven to be a professional hockey player.” Raised in blue-collar North Chelmsford, Mass., Eichel attacked these goals with pure sweat equity: lifting weights before middle school, rollerblading with older kids around the neighborhood cul-de-sac, shooting pucks at night until his hands bloodied. “That was always my mindset: If I work at something, I can achieve it,” he says. “If something’s not going well for you and you’re not succeeding, you just have to work harder at it and you can do better.”
Since arriving as the No. 2 overall pick in 2015, Eichel has been frustrated by team-wide failures—three straight sub-.500 seasons, capped by the NHL’s worst record in ‘17-18—that no amount of individual toil could fix. But things have finally turned around. Led by Eichel, whose 49 points ranked ninth league-wide entering Monday, the Sabres’ remarkable rise was featured in the Dec. 31 issue of Sports Illustrated. Here are some leftovers that didn’t make the final cut.
Every NHL player has a routine. Pretty much impossible to survive an 82-game season without one. Even so, Eichel is especially structured. Over a recent lunch, I asked Eichel to list his game day schedule. He rattled it off without hesitation.
“I wake up, go the rink, have egg whites, oatmeal, strawberries,” Eichel says, all but taking a deep breath. Next he drinks an apple juice, a packet of electrolyte powder with water, and a Gatorade. Then he tapes his sticks, takes the morning skate, receives a flush from the Sabres massage therapist, showers and hops into the cold tub for four minutes before heading home.
“[Sabres winger] Sam Reinhart picks up our pregame meal at a restaurant that we like,” he continues. “He lives like four houses down from me, so I pick it up at his house, grab it, eat at like 12:30 with a couple Pellegrinos. I sleep from 2 to 3:45, wake up at 3:45, put my suit on, get a coffee, usually show up to the rink at 4:30, take a shower, go into the cold tub again, get dressed, put the Normatec pants on. Those come off at about 5:05. Then I go cut a stick, change my skate laces, tape my stick, go to a meeting, get out of a meeting, eat an apple…”
Here, I interrupt. Does he always eat the same kind of apple?
“No,” Eichel says. “It changes depending on where we are. That’s the only problem: s----y apples.”
This is where things get especially superstitious. Not only does Eichel perform these tasks in this exact order before every game, but he always listens to the same songs at the same times while doing so. The Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” for instance, plays before he enters the locker room. A$AP Rocky is the choice while foam-rolling, Kygo for taping his stick. “Puts me in a good mood,” Eichel says. “I try to take out as many variables as I can, right? Try to simplify everything, so all I think about is the game.”
Bogosian has a story about Eichel. Last holidays, a few Sabres players were visiting children at Roswell Park, the cancer treatment facility located two miles north of KeyBank Center. While there, Eichel struck up a relationship with a boy, maybe 12 years old. Eichel asked what he wanted for Christmas. PlayStation VR, the boy replied.
A few days later, Eichel was shopping for some family members at Best Buy and came across the virtual reality system. He bought it, returned to the hospital, and presented it to the boy.
“Him being him, there’s going to be cameras everywhere,” Bogosian says. “But there’s a lot of stuff he does behind the scenes that I don’t even know about. And if he gets by me, that’s pretty impressive.”
1) “The Boston in him comes out every once in a while. Even when we’re winning, he doesn’t lose that f--- you attitude. He has a confidence about him that I think is great. He’s not afraid to scream and yell, but that being said, he’s not afraid to back that up too.” — Bogosian on Eichel.
2) “My first few years, when I wasn’t good, I was bad. And that’s the difference. When you’re not at your best, you find a way to do something to help the team or make a positive impact on the game. I think that’s part of maturity. Just try to eliminate those nights, but you know you’re going to have them. When you do, try to do something. Don’t be invisible. Don’t hurt your team." — Eichel on personal growth.
3) “This is a special group of people. I think we have a really, really close bond. I think we’re a tight group. I think that outweighs a lot of things. There’s no bad guys pulling on the rope the wrong way. We’re all coming into it. The culture, the foundation’s been set. I think guys are committed to it. They’re committed to each other. People don’t want to let each other down. When you have that, it goes a long way.” — Eichel on the Sabres.
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Looking back, Bob Eichel says, Feb. 10 was “a s--- day.”
That afternoon, riding on the bus to TD Garden in Boston during the Sabres’ annual father’s trip, Bob heard his son say something for the first time ever: “I’ve never felt this good playing in my entire life.” Indeed, Eichel had been scorching-hot over the past month, racking up 18 points in 13 games and making his first NHL All-Star Game appearance.
“Then he got hurt that night,” Bob Eichel says. “Imagine that.”
Tangled up with former Boston University teammate Matt Grzelcyk, Eichel suffered a high ankle sprain and missed five weeks. The Sabres were already careening toward playoff elimination, but Eichel was nonetheless wrenched while forced to sit. “Once that happened, it seemed to really snowball,” Fish says. “I don’t want to say that he was completely depressed, but man, he was so down. There were times I’d go up there, hang out with him. He’d go to the rink, do his treatment, but you could just see there was a burning in him to want to be on the ice.”
The season was long since lost when Eichel returned for the final 12 games, but the calculus was easy in his mind. “It wasn’t about me trying to take the extra time to get healthy,” he says. “It was just about me playing hockey, because that’s what I do and that’s what makes me happy. People asked, Why would you come back? Why would you risk getting hurt again if it’s not 100%? Anyone who questioned that really doesn’t know me or the way that I am.”
So, about the sword.
Near the end of training camp, the Sabres took a team field trip to Arc & Flame, a welding and blacksmithing facility in Rochester, N.Y. The players split into four stations, each related to their ultimate goal: forging a real sword based on a World War I infantry sabre.
It was all very Game of Thrones. They wielded a sledgehammer and two-pound forging hammer, striking the metal. "Everyone got to pound on that steel," coach Phil Housley says. They cut sheets of steel using a plasma cutter, which heats to roughly 30,000 degrees Fahrenheit. They formed the guard and handle of the sword. “A couple guys, I think it was the first time holding a hammer,” Bogosian says.
The finished product hadn’t yet been delivered to the Sabres when I visited, but Housley plans to hang the sword in their colorful locker room at KeyBank Center, where other decorations include glossy pictures of memorable moments in franchise history and a giant stuffed bison head.
And, finally, one more quote from Eichel about the prospect of leading the Sabres to their first Stanley Cup playoffs berth since '10-11, an increasingly likely proposition given that they sit fourth in the Eastern Conference on New Years' Eve:
"During that [10-game] win streak, you started to get a taste of how things are when you’re doing well. The arena, the atmosphere in the rink, the atmosphere outside the arena. I imagine it’d be multiplied by 100 if we were in the playoffs.”