12:28 PM ET
Jack Eichel knows his return to Buffalo will be “awkward” and says he doesn’t know how Sabres fans will react — though he hopes they focus on some positives.
“I think about my time in Buffalo, it obviously ended a little bit messy,” Eichel, the former Sabres captain, told ESPN ahead of his first game in Buffalo (7 p.m. ET Thursday, ESPN+) since getting traded to the Vegas Golden Knights in November. “But I hope [fans] can look past some of the things that happened maybe in the last year and think about the previous five and a half, six years that I was there and everything that I tried to do for the community, everything that I feel like I put forth on the ice as a hockey player, and know I just tried to do as much as I could for the city.”
Eichel, 25, was the No. 2 overall pick by the Sabres in 2015 and was in the middle of an eight-year, $80 million contract — the largest in team history — when he entered a dispute with management over how to treat a herniated disk in his neck. Sabres doctors wanted Eichel to undergo a fusion surgery, while Eichel wanted to follow his second opinion doctor and get an artificial disk replacement surgery — which had never been performed on an NHL player before. Under the NHL collective bargaining agreement, teams have the final say over how to treat injuries.
The Sabres stripped Eichel of his captaincy and facilitated a trade to the Golden Knights, who allowed the center to undergo the artificial disk replacement surgery in November.
Eichel said he was sitting in his driveway when Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams called and delivered the news about his captaincy being removed.
“I was frustrated,” Eichel said. “If you think about the reason why you took the captaincy away from me, it was because ‘I didn’t agree with you medically.’ Then you basically told me not to come around for training camp. At that point, it just felt like they were toying with me. So I was just, I was pretty over it.”
Eichel said his lowest point came in October, and into November, as the NHL season began without him. Eichel remained at home in Boston as he waited for a trade.
“I tried to stay patient and optimistic and [think] something’s going to happen, I’m going to find some positive news at some point. And then it just started to get to the point where I was in no man’s land,” Eichel said. “I wasn’t really doing much. I was trying to stay in the gym, trying to stay on the ice. I was just trying to stay motivated, to be honest with you, but it got to the point where I didn’t have any clear path and I didn’t have any real purpose at the time.
“And I knew that, no matter what, I still needed to get surgery and I still needed to do three months of rehab. So it was going to be a long time before I played. … Plus, watching the guys get back and be out on the ice, that’s what I wanted to be doing. And I felt like I easily could have been there, if the process had played out differently maybe earlier in the summer or last spring.”
Eichel was skating a month after surgery and debuted for the Golden Knights in February. If he had received the fusion surgery, he would have been sidelined for at least six months.
Three weeks after Eichel underwent the surgery, Chicago Blackhawks center Tyler Johnson became the second player in league history to get ADR on his neck. Eichel and Johnson share an agent, and because Eichel did so much homework throughout the process, he explained to Johnson through a lot of the details on the phone.
“I would say maybe I’m an example of somebody who went against what their team thought was best for them and stood up for what they wanted,” Eichel said. “I mean there was a baseball player who was the first guy to get a Tommy John. So hopefully it just opens a new door for players to deal with an injury.”
Eichel said he is not feeling “100% yet” but is getting there. The center has three goals and four assists in 10 games with the Golden Knights, including his first signature moment — scoring a goal with 5.2 seconds remaining for a 2-1 win over the Ottawa Senators on Sunday.
“I hope [fans] can look past some of the things that happened maybe in the last year and think about the previous five and a half, six years that I was there and everything that I tried to do for the community, everything that I feel like I put forth on the ice as a hockey player, and know I just tried to do as much as I could for the city.”
Jack Eichel, on his first game in Buffalo since leaving the Sabres
Eichel found individual success in Buffalo — scoring 139 goals and 355 points in 375 games — though the team continued to struggle. The Sabres are mired in the longest postseason drought in the NHL, and Eichel had four head coaches and three general managers in Buffalo.
“The constant filtering out of coaches and GMs wore me out and I’m sure wore a lot of guys out,” Eichel said. “It’s not easy. You could feel the pressure there and the pressure to have success. And when you’re not able to do that, it definitely takes a toll on you.”
Eichel said he is looking forward to potentially playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time this spring.
“They don’t set the bar at making the playoffs. They don’t set the bar at winning the division,” Eichel said of the Golden Knights. “They set the bar at winning the Stanley Cup, and everything that’s done around here from the medical staff to the equipment guys — everyone’s on the same page and knows that that’s what the goal is at the end of the year. They do everything to give you the best chance to win and perform and worry about playing hockey. And you can’t ask for anything more.”
Eichel said if he had been allowed by the Sabres to receive any surgery he wanted, he is still not sure where he would be playing right now.
“I think things in Buffalo have changed a bit over the course of the last year,” Eichel said. “And so I can’t really say whether I’d be there or not. It was definitely getting to the point where it seems like they were moving a lot of guys out, and I think there’s only one or two guys that I was there with at the beginning that are still there. They’ve had a good turnover and there’s a lot of really good players and they have a lot of nice pieces in their organization, so who knows where I’d be.
“It probably would have been nice if I had the surgery a little sooner, then I could have had a full training camp, I’d be playing the whole season, and I’d probably would be in a little better position right now, but everything happens for a reason. And I couldn’t be happier where I’m at.”
Source: ESPN NHL