FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – Happy Eichel Day.
This is it. General Manager Tim Murray will call out the name Friday night in BB&T Center – perhaps using more than the six words he did last year to draft Sam Reinhart? – and Jack Eichel will officially become a member of the Buffalo Sabres.
We already know so much about this 18-year-old from North Chelmsford, Mass., who is going to instantly become the face of a franchise. He’s the next Mike Modano or Jonathan Toews, the experts say. Maybe he’s simply the first Jack Eichel.
You’ve drooled over the video and even watched some games to see the long stick, the powerful stride, the dexterity of the hands, the heavy shot, the vision all over the ice. Are there any weaknesses in his game?
The top prospects he’s hung out with for the last month are unanimous that Eichel is just a regular guy and that’s why they’ve enjoyed his company. But it seems they finally found his Kryptonite the last couple days.
Just as Eichel told me he might Wednesday in Marlins Park, the word is he pretty much acted like a frightened turtle and was hoping to crawl inside his shell when the top prospects took an Everglades boat tour Thursday.
The reactions we got afterward were priceless. London forward Mitch Marner and Boston College defenseman Noah Hanifin actually took turns holding a 12-foot boa constrictor around their necks and taunting Eichel with the snake.
“When we got to the area we were going to, there was a snake petting area,” said Kingston forward Lawson Crouse. “I turned to Jack and said, ‘Eichs, get over here’ and he ran in the opposite direction. He was nowhere to be found.”
“Oh my god,” was Erie center Dylan Strome’s first reaction when I asked about the trip. And he couldn’t contain his laughter.
“OK, here it is,” Strome said. “One of the NHL TV guys tried to get the mic fixed on Jack’s back. he was sitting down and I think he thought it was a snake. And he jumped up like a little baby. That’s what we called him. A little baby. He doesn’t like animals that much.”
Connor McDavid agreed. Said Friday night’s top pick of Eichel: “I don’t think he’s much of a fan of the wildlife.”
Eichel was facing a veritable gaggle of cameras and reporters at the other end of the room in the Westin Beach Resort & Spa when serious subjects about hockey were pushed aside momentarily. Looked like he even recoiled in his chair when the boat tour was brought up.
“I’m definitely not a fan of alligators, pythons, snakes, anything like that,” Eichel said. “We didn’t see too many alligators. I think we only saw two and I was in the middle of the boat, so I was all right.”
Asked about Marner’s snake charming, Eichel shook his head in disbelief and said, “Marner and Hanifin threw the snake around their necks. I was sitting on the deck by myself 25 yards away.”
Said Hanifin of Eichel: “He was hiding in the middle of the boat and flinching around. I had the boa constrictor around my neck and he wouldn’t even go within 10 feet of me. It was pretty funny.”
The Everglades are a different world from the working class neighborhood outside of Boston that bred Eichel. But that upbringing has served Eichel well.
Hanifin is a big rival at Boston College who played against Eichel’s Boston University squad last season. But they played together in the All-American Prospects Game in First Niagara Center and on Team USA. And they’ve walked the beach here this week, a BC guy and a BU guy reflecting on the crazy journey of the last nine months.
“If we were back home, people would give us some funny looks,” Hanifin said. “You don’t do that with those two schools.”
While the top prospects, including McDavid, were mostly Ontario Hockey League players who didn’t know Eichel until the last few weeks, Hanifin does. Very well. And he knows what the Sabres are getting.
“He’s a very confident kid in who he is as a person and player,” Hanifin said. “That’s the best thing about Jack. He’s never going to change who he is, even with all the attention he gets. He’ll never change his personally. That’s a good quality to have.”
“The six of us, we’ve become some pretty good buddies in that group,” McDavid said. “We’ve gone through some good experiences, and some memories we’ve made will last a lifetime. He’s part of that group, and he seems like a very good guy.”
Strome has spent all year as a teammate of McDavid in Erie, so he’s had one of the best seats in any house to see greatness this season. He said it’s been interesting to learn about Eichel, the other “generational” player in this year’s draft.
“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about him,” Strome said. “He’s ready to become a pro. He knows what it takes to get to the next level. I’ve seen him on TV a couple times and it’s not hard to see.”
The journey to Eichel’s starring role in Buffalo starts Friday night. The clip of him standing on stage with Sabres brass will no doubt become an iconic video in franchise annals. As for the video of Eichel and the snakes? Have to see what NHL.com does with that.
Should make for some laughs. We are, after all, still talking about an 18-year-old. But don’t worry, kid. There’s no boas or gators in The 716.