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Jack Eichel Is Finding His Peace

After years of turmoil in Buffalo, a scary neck injury, and a dramatic move to the Golden Knights, the eighth-year pro enters this regular season feeling, well, regular. And excited for it to be that way.

Jonathan Bartlett

Of all the things to appreciate about Las Vegas—a place famously secure in its loud, gaudy glory—Jack Eichel has come to value its tranquility. “I like living on West Coast time now,” says the 25-year-old center for the Vegas Golden Knights, squeezed into a folding chair following a recent practice. “It’s really good for football watching. It makes your nights really quiet, which I like.” By the time he sits down for dinner, Eichel explains, the daily buzz that rattles around him finally settles down, as all his family and friends and advisers back east—from Massachusetts to upstate New York—drift away. “Most people are either heading to bed or finishing their night,” he says, “and it gives you an opportunity to decompress. Less people are trying to get a hold of you.” It’s no wonder that Eichel would notice the presence of silence this way; over the course of his precocious hockey career, he’s typically been stuck in the middle of a whole lot of noise.

As a kid, Eichel accumulated hype: the rinkside whispers among parents about the best young player anyone in the community could remember; the invitations to esteemed tournaments; the booming praise from his coaches. As a teen, he was the subject of reams of analysis: first from Team USA representatives building national teams, then from collegiate and NHL scouts. As an 18-year-old freshman at Boston University, he lived in a dorm that was downright mum compared to the thundering reception he would earn on the ice with the Terriers, winning the beloved Beanpot and becoming only the second freshman ever to earn the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top college hockey player. Before he was selected second by the hapless Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 NHL draft, he had already been a fixation of pro hockey talking heads for the better part of a year.

And most recently, following six seasons in Buffalo—during which Eichel averaged nearly a point per game, played under four different head coaches and three different general managers, and never made the playoffs—he departed under conditions that were anything but hush-hush. Eichel’s frustration with the team brass had already been documented in exit interviews over the years, but after suffering a neck injury on an awkward hit into the boards in an early March 2021 game, Eichel clashed with the franchise over a new topic: surgery. He sought an innovative procedure called artificial disk replacement, which he hoped would bring both faster and longer-lasting relief than the old, standard cervical fusion treatment that the team preferred. The Sabres pushed back, arguing that the surgery had never been done before on an NHL player and thus presented too much of an unknowable risk. Their stalemate stretched on for months and grew increasingly bitter and public. Eichel was stripped of his captaincy and, last November, traded far, far away to Las Vegas. In March, when he returned to Buffalo for the first time as an opponent, he was lustily booed, and after that game he turned the volume up to 11 with a snort and a chirp that now live in infamy. “That’s the loudest I’ve heard this place, ever,” Eichel said then. “It only took seven years and me leaving for them to get into the game.”

These were certainly not words that the Buffalo faithful wished to hear, which is why they’ve been repeating them ever since to whomever will listen, casting Eichel in a bit of a hockey heel role going into the 2022-23 season. It’s not a narrative that he is thrilled with, though it’s one he can understand. “I’m not, like—this isn’t a ‘revenge’ season,” Eichel says in early October, sitting at his dining table with his French bulldog, Harold, on his lap, his buddy Danny across the room, and a Blue Jays–Mariners playoff game on TV. “I think every season is like, prove yourself.” Pro hockey is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business, Eichel adds, “and I haven’t done anything spectacular lately.”

Luckily, in Vegas, the spectacle is on the house, making it an intriguing spot for Eichel to start fresh. And with a new Golden Knights coach in Bruce Cassidy and the fellow recent roster addition of Phil Kessel, Eichel is not the only one eager to move forward with a new-look franchise. The eighth-year pro has learned over the years that if you don’t like what’s being said, you can make it easier not to listen—perhaps by basking in the calm stillness of p.m. Pacific Time. But you can also change the subject altogether, and the best way to accomplish that is by starting a more compelling conversation.

The Golden Knights play their home games at T-Mobile Arena, a gleaming and truly soul-thumpingly loud six-year-old venue on the Vegas Strip near the corner of Tropicana Avenue and Frank Sinatra Drive. The arena is adjacent to a stunted simulacrum of Manhattan called New York, New York, and also to the Park MGM casino. Inside, fans are treated to fun displays of lights and sounds and knights and showgirls, and also to a Shake Shack concession stand that operates at true modern-marvel levels of efficiency and scale.

The team’s practice facility, meanwhile, is about 25 minutes to the west in Summerlin, a tidy sweep of land named after the grandmother of the late reclusive magnate Howard Hughes, who purchased the parcel in the early 1950s. The jagged sandstone formations of Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area loom and sometimes glow in the distance; new construction is slapped up day by day in the foreground. It’s not unusual to find oneself driving on freshly asphalted roads that the GPS systems haven’t caught up with just yet.

Which, if you think about it, is kind of how it feels to begin a new hockey season—especially when so much about the team is new. “Us both coming in at the same time, we’re a little bit—I dunno if I should say tied together,” says Cassidy, the first-year Golden Knights coach, about Eichel. “But we are.”

Cassidy is at his desk at the practice rink, watching footage from a recent preseason tilt. Before being ousted by the Bruins at the end of last season, Cassidy had coached Boston since 2016 and spent eight years before that with the team’s AHL affiliate Providence Bruins. Moving from such longtime immersion within one franchise to a totally clean slate with the NHL’s second-newest team was a jolt, both in terms of getting to know the hockey personnel and in more mundane ways. “I was thinking yesterday,” Cassidy says, “I wonder what the guys use for dry cleaning? There’s a lot of services around here!”

Eichel has been in Vegas slightly longer than Cassidy—he played 34 games for the Golden Knights last season after recovering from his artificial disk replacement surgery, finishing with 25 points—but he brings up the same subject when he talks about transitioning to a new place: “You ask your teammates,” he says, “Where do you get your dry cleaning?” (Talk about tied together!)

Cassidy had crossed paths with Eichel a few times over the years, sometimes running into him at rinks in Boston when the Massachusetts native was home training over the summer, and had heard tell of the player even before they met. A Bruins skating and skills coach named Kim Brandvold who had worked with Eichel earlier in his career “talked about Jack a lot,” Cassidy says. Leading up to the 2015 draft, which also featured Connor McDavid, Cassidy would needle Brandvold about his star pupil. “We’d always be sort of, ‘bah, [this guy] is way better,’” recalls Cassidy with a chuckle. “You know, tease him, right? So I knew a lot about Jack.”

This summer, Cassidy and Eichel met up at a coffee shop on Cape Cod around the Fourth of July holiday—Eichel was in town for a wedding, and Cassidy has a place on the Cape—and chatted about their expectations for both men’s roles this season. “I understand the stars in this league have to shine,” Cassidy says, “but it’s also about the crest, not the name on the back, and you have to find a balance with that.” Eichel, for his part, agrees.

When Eichel was in eighth grade, the crest on his jersey was that of the Junior Bruins, a travel team in the Boston area that consisted almost entirely of players many years his senior. He was 13 years old; his teammates and opponents could be as old as 18, 19, even 20. (At the time, the Junior Bruins didn’t have a separate younger-aged team the way they do now.) “My parents were driving me to practice, and everyone else on the team was driving themselves,” Eichel says. It was not a smooth melding at first. “That amount of difference between a 13-year-old boy and a 20-year-old man is really significant,” he says. It took him a couple of months to finally score a goal, and he remembers the experience as probably the biggest challenge he ever had as a player, “including going to the NHL, including playing in college.”

As Eichel remembers this, his best friend and childhood teammate Danny Ferri nods along, remembering too. (Under the table, Harold licks my leg and farts silently.) Throughout their youth, “he was always the best,” says Ferri, who moved out to Vegas a couple of months ago and works as a hockey instructor and coach. Eichel was obsessed with the sport: His bedroom was plastered with Pavel Bure posters; he loved Sidney Crosby but also wore yellow skate laces in honor of Alex Ovechkin; he dominated as if he were a wee manifestation of all three. “Parents would say, like, other kids will catch up to him and all that stuff, and it just never happened,” says Ferri. “Like, he kept getting better.”

If anyone knows the perils of betting against Eichel, it’s Ferri. Recently, the pair made a wager over a game of backyard ping-pong: If Eichel lost, he had to buy the TV for Ferri’s new apartment. If he won, Ferri had to grow a particular configuration of facial hair that involves only shaving the middle of his chin. This didn’t end well for Ferri’s visage. “It’s going to take awhile,” he says. “I don’t grow a very good beard.”

The guys start listing their various daily competitions, and it is a dudely decathalon indeed. Lots of ping-pong: Eichel estimates his lifetime record against Ferri is something like 115-3. (He got really good when he was playing for the U.S. National Development Program in high school and lived with a family in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that had three sons.) Lots of video games—Madden and NHL, mostly—that sometimes end with thrown controllers and slammed doors. (“I was actually like, steaming. I was fuming. I was sweating,” Ferri says about one such game just the other night. “I was so angry.”) Hitting golf balls with pitching wedges in perfect arcs over the pool. Getting in the pool and dunking a little basketball in one another’s face.

“Home run derby,” remembers Ferri. “We bought a bucket of balls, a baseball bat, and two gloves.” Eichel beams at the memory. Harold is back in Eichel’s lap, his head thrown back for a belly rub and his bulldog smirk suspended upside-down. “We went to Dick’s, went to a field, and saw who could hit more home runs in 10 outs,” Eichel says. “Lost that one too,” Ferri responds.

“Oh, a good one was, he bought these shoe racks,” Ferri says. “This is how bad and competitive we are. He bought two shoe racks, and we set them up right here, and we raced to see who could finish first.” Reader, a timer was involved.

It’s delightful to see and hear about such absurd levels of competitiveness, but it’s also a telling bit of context on multiple levels. Eichel possesses a kind of innate, borderline wild-eyed drive that, when combined with his physical gifts on the ice—that smooth, upright stride; that space-creating reach; that deceptive height—gives him so much potential in the NHL. At the same time, though, it also seems to have contributed to one of the highest-profile conflicts of his career.

Eichel had every reason to want to make things work in Buffalo, the American city with the most Canadian-strength hockey fandom this side of the 49th parallel. Achieving major—and probably even minor—success in that city would have meant having it all: statues and renamed streets and everlasting stardom and free food at Chef’s for life. In 2017, Eichel signed an eight-year, $80 million deal to remain a Sabre. But his interest in the region wasn’t just professional, it was personal.

During his lone year at Boston University, Eichel went to a bar, met a sophomore at Northeastern named Erin Basil, and developed one hell of a crush. About a month later they were dating; a few months after that, Eichel was drafted by Buffalo—which just so happened to be Erin’s cherished hometown. Speaking by phone after a long work day for a medical technology company, Basil recalls how joyous it was, for a time, to have Jack playing for the Sabres. “My best memories,” she says, “was that he got to become so close with my family and friends.” That meant cousins, grandparents, the works. Many hockey players don’t really have a place to go for Thanksgiving or Christmas other than, say, their captain’s house. Eichel had the opposite issue: “We had almost too many to go to,” says Basil. “I always had a family,” Eichel says.

Which only made it more melancholy when, over the years, the relationship between Eichel and the Sabres soured. “Whether or not we won or had any success there, I put everything I had into that organization for the entire time I was there,” he says.

The team’s unwillingness to let Eichel undergo his desired surgery may have been a stance initially rooted in caution. But as the months ticked by without Eichel on the ice, Buffalo’s ongoing “no” began to seem punitive, even petty. Back at home, Eichel was restless: “There’s only so many competitive things you can do without being able to turn your neck,” Basil says. “We had a lot of good games of rock, paper, scissors, or board games that you couldn’t go to bed until he won.” Worse than the neck pain was the feeling of helplessness. By October 2021, even NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was calling the impasse “a terrible situation.”

By the time the Sabres finally traded Eichel to Vegas last November, whereupon he finally had a successful surgery, the sentiment from many of the parties involved was one of relief, of looking ahead. On March 10, though, Eichel was back in Buffalo, playing his 11th game since his procedure and his first at his old haunt. It was not a gleeful reunion.

Boos rained down throughout the first period whenever Eichel got the puck, and even when he didn’t. Both Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch, two of the players traded from Vegas for Eichel, scored; one of the goals was the direct result of an Eichel giveaway. It was an ugly, unhappy night, and when it was over and Eichel was surrounded by reporters, he couldn’t help but mouth off. After making his seven-years remark, he concluded: “They must just be booing me because they wish I was still here.”

In both content and delivery, it was the kind of trash talk that, on the ice, happens unexceptionally all the time. But it’s one thing to chirp a chirper and another to rile up an already frenzied mob of fans. (Particularly when they’re the belly-flop-onto-tables kind.) The fallout from his remarks has been passionate, and it feels lasting.

“I think I’m an emotional guy to start with,” Eichel says now. “That was a very emotional game, and I don’t think that there’s any way to prepare for a situation like that unless you’ve been through it. That was hard on me and I didn’t necessarily enjoy it that evening. And then on top of losing—yeah, I was frustrated, I was emotional, I probably wish I would have taken a little more time before I got in front of the cameras. But I wouldn’t say that I regret it, because, you know, I don’t think you can sit back in life and be like, you know what? I regret this, I regret that.”

This summer, Eichel spent time in Buffalo with Erin and said he only had positive interactions—though “people are going to act different to your face,” he says. “You just got to live and you learn and you move on from it.” He has a month to prepare for his next return, he says, not that anyone’s been counting.

Eichel’s new fans, the ones in Las Vegas, are invited to attend Golden Knights practices, which last about an hour, give or take. Recently there came to be some familiar faces, like Goldie the Vegas Cheerleader, a golden retriever in a Golden Knights hand-sewn frock. Or a woman named Kathleen Craner, whom I first met when she picked me up at the practice center in a Golden Knights–festooned Lyft car and told me that, by her count, the team had held 373 open practices since inception and she had been there for all but six of them. A guy silently waving a giant pole bearing two Golden Knights flags and wearing a T-shirt that said “FLAG GUY” was there each day, too.

Originally from Orlando, Flag Guy, f.k.a. Matt Helfst, had fallen in love with soccer culture, in which flags have meaning, man, and now seeks to bring that spirit to Las Vegas hockey. He bought the flags at Walmart; ordered the pole off Amazon (“You can search ‘telescoping flagpole,’” he says; “the flagpole goes anywhere from 3 feet all the way to 20 feet”) and began waving away. Sometimes players flash him a thumbs-up during practice. And while the flags aren’t allowed inside T-Mobile arena during NHL games, he waves them on the plaza just outside. Fans are constantly offering him tickets, but “I always tell them, if my flags can’t go in, then I don’t want to go in.”

Citywide support for the team is evident beyond the practice rink. Driving around the area, you know you’re probably seeing a rental car when it doesn’t have between two and six pieces of VGK flair. On a recent Saturday night that was full of baseball playoff games and college football, multiple TVs at a sports bar on the Strip were dedicated to a Golden Knights preseason tilt being played in Boise. (As American hockey fans know, it feels abnormal to not have to beg skeptical bartenders to turn on our strange sport.) When the team began with an expansion draft five years ago, no one expected them to leave the basement for a little while. Instead, a lovable team that referred to itself as “The Golden Misfits” surged all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in its inaugural season.

On the practice ice, the Golden Knights players went through crisp odd-man-rush drills and then separated into power-play units, Eichel looking for seams from the half-wall. For much of the preseason, at even strength, he has played alongside Reilly Smith, a grinding winger who Cassidy says plays an exemplary 200-foot game that might be instructive for Eichel. Smith flashes a smile with a missing tooth or several when asked to assess the chemistry between him and his linemate. “He’s such a dynamic player,” Smith says. “I’m just another cog in the machine trying to get open.” The other day, Eichel hit him with a give-and-go pass that was so quick and precise he barely saw it coming. “I just always have to be ready to get the puck,” Smith says. “I like setting other guys up,” Eichel says.

So does Kessel, these days. Now beginning his 17th (!) NHL season, Kessel has transitioned from elite scorer to savvy playmaker; he often set Eichel up during the preseason. (Eichel finished with seven points in four games.) But that flow could go the other direction, too. “Someone’s got to shoot,” Kessel says, sitting in the Vegas locker room after practice. “Maybe I’ll have to go back to being a scorer.”

Kessel’s career makes for an intriguing road map in relation to Eichel’s. When Kessel began his own eighth season, in 2013-14, it was on the heels of a weird year that was truncated by an NHL lockout and befouled by the Toronto Maple Leafs’ infamous 5-4 loss to Boston in a Game 7 during which the Leafs had held a 4-1 third-period lead. “That was a long time ago,” Kessel says; since then, he’s been traded, won two Stanley Cups with Pittsburgh, played in an Olympics and in Arizona, and, between 2017-19, had the two most productive years of his career. He’s had both a baby daughter and a truly remarkable iron-man streak: He’s currently six games away from having the all-time NHL record for consecutive games played. The hockey world likes to fret about windows closing and opportunities slipping away, but there are a lot of examples in which guys can find a better life in a new place.

“You get treated awfully well here,” says team captain Mark Stone, who arrived in Las Vegas in 2019 from the Ottawa Senators and who this offseason had a successful, if rather disgusting, surgery of his own. “The facilities are top notch. From the time you get here to the time you leave, you’re treated well. You’re given every chance to succeed.” When Eichel arrived, one of the first people to take him to dinner, at a top-notch restaurant called La Strega, was Stone.

In the Golden Knights’ 2022-23 season opener, on the road in Los Angeles on Tuesday night, both Eichel and Stone scored their first goals of the season in a back-and-forth game that demonstrated Vegas’s resilience and was won with only 26 seconds to play. The two were joined on the scoreboard by William Karlsson and Jonathan Marchessault, two of the six players remaining from that inaugural 2017 team that made a run to the Cup Final. And Eichel finished the game with seven shots on goal, more than he generated in all but two games this spring.

The game also marked something that Eichel hadn’t experienced in years: the mundane normalcy of playing in an opening game in early October, the sign of an actual regular season. This was big for Eichel, who is a man of routine, a creature of habit, a guy who has seen pretty much every episode of his favorite TV show Two and a Half Men multiple times—“I don’t fall asleep well at night,” Basil says, “but when that show comes on the eyes go shut real quick”—and who never gets sick of replaying the cinematic classics: Meet the Parents, The Hangover, Home Alone. (That last one is what loosely inspired the dog name “Harold”; if the couple gets a second dog, Jack wants to name it “Marvin.”)

“I try to limit as many variables as possible,” Eichel says. After games, there is a small handful of people that he likes to check in with for feedback or support, chief among them Erin, Danny—Eichel knows he’s had a tough night when Ferri breaks it to him that “it wasn’t your best”—and his dad, Bob. Their relationship in particular has mellowed over the years, Eichel says: “I think even early in my career, we used to get after each other pretty good if things weren’t going well,” he says. “But not as much anymore. He’s more of a supporter than criticizer now. I’ve got enough people criticizing me; I told him he doesn’t need to be another one.”

When Eichel was in Buffalo, he and his dad would text immediately after a game, but now with the time difference, they sometimes catch up the next morning. This can occasionally be a hassle, sure, but mostly it just means that Eichel can finally, blissfully, eat his post-game meal in peace.


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