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Eichel feels the embrace of Western New York

CHICAGO – Jack Eichel heard you. All of you.

The folks that stopped him on the street, spotted him at the Erie Basin Marina or boarding a boat at the Naval and Military Park. The ones that asked for pictures – and then posted many of them on Twitter or Instagram. The ones who simply said hello, good luck or welcome.

If there’s any real decision left for Eichel to make between choosing a sophomore season at Boston University or a freshman one in First Niagara Center, the 18-year-old said here Monday the fans in Buffalo who showered him with greetings during last week’s NHL Scouting Combine left quite the impression.

“It’s definitely a hockey city,” Eichel said as the NHL’s top six prospects made their annual trek to the Stanley Cup final. “I’d been there before and it was kind of expected. … Whether it was going out to dinner or just walking around, they obviously really support their hockey. It was a really cool experience. I think it was pretty neat for me to be a part of the Combine, and have the Combine in Buffalo.”

Eichel joked his social media feeds pretty much blew up with Buffalo fans after the NHL Draft Lottery, when it was determined Edmonton had won the top choice and was in line to take Connor McDavid. That, of course, leaves Eichel for the Sabres at No. 2.

“I’m always on Twitter and Instagram and that’s where I kind of realized how crazy the Buffalo fans really were,” Eichel said. “Buffalo is a pretty good fit, and it definitely factors into my decision.”

For 18 minutes Monday morning, Eichel coolly answered questions from a small group of reporters in the United Center. Across the room was a much larger group crowded around McDavid. They’re both going to be connected for their entire careers. Fans of their teams are probably hoping this year’s Chicago-Tampa Bay final will one day morph into Buffalo-Edmonton.

They’ve been opponents on the ice, notably at the World Junior Championships on New Year’s Eve in Montreal. But they had never really met and talked until last week in Buffalo on a sunny afternoon on Washington Street outside HarborCenter.

“The two of us were just walking down the street, bumped into each other, shook hands and that was it,” Eichel said. “I don’t think we wanted to make a big deal of it as everyone else did.”

“I met him at the Combine and kind of hung around,” said McDavid. “Obviously this trip we’re a little bit closer. It’s been a good chance to get to know him.”

The prospects were wide-eyed as they were ushered into the Blackhawks’ locker room after the morning skate and saw the horde of cameras and reporters digging for nuggets prior to Game Three. Alas, reporters’ access ended before anyone saw if Eichel, McDavid or the others met Patrick Kane, although that was expected to happen.

Once inside the Tampa Bay room, the kids were in the back corner talking to Lightning winger Jonathan Drouin. The No. 3 selection in 2013, Drouin was on this exact same tour just two years ago. The big moment came when Tampa captain Steven Stamkos (No. 1 in 2008, prospect spectator for Pittsburgh at Detroit) shook everyone’s hand and said hello.

“It’s a huge privilege, a great event the NHL puts on every year,” Eichel said of the trip, which also features a segment with legendary CBC analyst Don Cherry. “I couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.”

As he noted at the Combine, Eichel said he was thrilled to learn that the Sabres hired Dan Bylsma to be their new coach after they had bonded at the World Championships with Team USA last month in the Czech Republic.

They did video sessions together but not so much about Team USA’s upcoming opponents. Bylsma was showing Eichel clips of old NHL games. And the most common player he was using for his lessons was Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby.

“He was showing me his movement away from the puck and that he’s always at top speed,” Eichel said of Bylsma’s Crosby lessons. “That’s what Coach Bylsma wanted a little more out of me. Crosby is known for that.”

So what’s stopping Eichel from just saying right now he’ll be playing for Bylsma next season? Seems like Boston University’s loss in the championship game in the Frozen Four is a big thing.

“Just the guys, my relationship with them,” he said. “There’s a lot of pros and cons about going both places. It’s not an easy decision. It’s why I haven’t made it yet. Yeah, there’s some unfinished business. It was definitely tough to lose the last game. It’s one of the lures of coming back.”

If BU had won the title, would the decision pretty much be over already?

“I don’t really think that at all,” he said. “I don’t make decisions that lightly. I don’t think I’d be able to leave BU that quickly. Losing the last game made it tougher but it is what it is.”

Eichel has been consistent with his message for weeks, that a decision won’t be made until after the draft. But I pressed him if that means a day or two or a month or two after he gets that Sabres jersey on the stage in Sunrise, Fla.

“Probably sooner than later,” he said. “I’d like to know what I’m doing this summer. Probably pretty quickly after the draft I’ll finalize my decision.”

Eichel’s parents have a say, too. “It’s 6ø hours from my house” to Buffalo, he said. “So they like it.”

Amid all the serious talk, Yahoo “Puck Daddy” blogger Greg Wyshynski told Eichel he had a five-pack of oddball questions to ask. Knowing that the 716 is becoming pretty much All Eichel All The Time, here are the inquiries and the answers:

One movie you have to watch every time it comes on TV? “The Town,” starring Ben Affleck.

Most famous name in your cell phone contacts? “I don’t know. I’m not sure.” (Eichel passed on that one, although I was waiting for him to say Dan Bylsma).

What would be your personal goal song? “Time of Our Lives” by Pit Bull and Ne-Yo. (Yes, I Googled it).

Is a hot dog a sandwich?

No.

If you weren’t a hockey player, what would you play? “I’d probably want to be on the PGA Tour. But it’s not relaxing. They’re probably pretty stressed out. Probably that or for the Red Sox.”

Taking that cue, I went out of the box and asked Eichel about his classic Buffalo meal over the last week.

“I went to Duff’s,” he said. “I heard a lot about the Buffalo wings. They were really good.”

(Soon enough, we assume he’ll know to call them “chicken wings.”)

So what’s an Eichel negative at this point? Here’s one: Even though he’s about to join the Sabres, he says he’s not going to start hating the Boston Bruins. Eichel spoke fondly of sitting on his couch with his father watching their favorite team win the Cup in Game Seven at Vancouver in 2011.

“I was really excited. It was nice to share that moment with my dad,” he said. “The two of us watching the Bruins win. It was really cool. You don’t have to hate the Bruins or any team. I grew up rooting for them. They’ll always have a spot in my heart.”

Sabres fans seem to have already earned a place in Eichel’s as well. He talked about how General Manager Tim Murray has a “good vision” for the team’s future, and he certainly learned about that during his interview with the club last week.

“A lot of young, talented players. A lot of skill,” Eichel said when asked about the Sabres. “I think they’ve done a really good job of developing young guys. As soon as they put it all together, which I’m sure they’re going to do really soon, it’s going to be a dangerous team.”

email mharrington@buffnews.com

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