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Winter Classic Notebook: All eyes on Eichel

NEW YORK -- When it comes to the Buffalo Sabres' role in the Winter Classic, the reality is simple: Most of the focus of fans -- and the NBC cameras -- will be on Jack Eichel.

Eichel spoke wistfully nearly six months ago about playing in the annual New Year's Day game when word first leaked out that the Sabres and New York Rangers would be meeting at Citi Field. But seeing the rink mocked on the infield Friday afternoon made things a lot more real for the Sabres' star.

"It's so exciting. I've always dreamed of being able to do something like this," Eichel said. "Being here, it gets more real and the event gets more and more exciting. I'm going to figure out a lot about what the overall experience is going to be like. I've watched a lot of them but I haven't played in an outdoor game so it will be exciting."

"He's an elite player, a talented player put on the big stage," said Sabres winger Jason Pominville. "A lot of the spotlight will be on him but he seems like a guy who handles those things well."

Pominville looking forward to coming full circle for another Winter Classic

Eichel watched the Sabres' 2008 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins at home as an 11-year-old in Massachusetts, something Commissioner Gary Bettman said Eichel, now 20, reminded him of before Friday's news conference.

"New York City on New Year's Day? Wow," Eichel said. "I should have a lot of friends and family here so it should be a heck of an experience."

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Eichel has been attending the NHL's annual media tour with national outlets and rights-holders the last two days and has handled numerous inquiries on his ongoing negotiations for a contract extension. He has dealt with them just as he did with Buffalo reporters Tuesday, setting a consistent tone and stating in no uncertain terms that he's happy with the Sabres and expecting a deal to get done eventually.

"That's what I wanted to do. It can become a distraction with people asking you about it and seeing where you are," he said. "So it's important for me to put my foot down and say, 'There's no problem with me playing without a contract. I'm committed to Buffalo, committed to the organization and they're committed to me.'

"I just want to go out and play and play well. The contract will take care of itself. It's the message I've given to my agents. It's not something I'm losing sleep and worrying too much about. I enjoy getting up and thinking about playing hockey."

Sabres' Eichel open to playing this season without new deal

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An overview of the Citi Field rink layout (Getty Images).

The rink was mocked out across the infield with one net near third base and another near first base. The entire rink was above the level of the mound.

There were no additional announcements made about the game on Friday other than logos for the two teams unveiled on the main scoreboard, with an "NY" added under the Sabres' cross swords.

In the past, an alumni game featuring stars of the two days has been played on New Year's Eve and a reality television show has aired through December on Showtime or Epix.

"All those are being worked on to be determined," Bettman said. "When we're buttoned down to where we'll do additional things surrounding this game, we'll make the appropriate announcements."

The same applies to jerseys the teams will wear during the game.

"It's great for the growth of the game and for us, you get more and more information and you find out different things," O'Reilly said. "It's a real hype thing. It's cool. I can't wait to see the jerseys. It's one of those things that keep rolling over with new stuff."

The Sabres will be the home team in the game because the Rangers' tax agreements with Madison Square Garden do not allow them to play in a different venue. Buffalo is thus expected to use the Mets' clubhouse as its dressing quarters here.

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Citi Field opened in 2009, a year after the Sabres' first trip to the Winter Classic. It will become the sixth baseball stadium to host the game, joining Wrigley Field, Fenway Park, Citizens Bank Park, Nationals Park and Busch Stadium.

Said Mets COO Jeff Wilpon: "I've bothered, badgered, pleaded with Commissioner Bettman to have this event here."

 

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