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For city on upswing, it’s the perfect match

SUNRISE, Fla. – This is all about the fit. The jersey fits Jack Eichel, as we finally saw Friday night in BB&T Center. And at this point in Sabres history, Jack Eichel fits Buffalo.

He has the potential to join Patrick Kane as the face of American hockey, at a time when Buffalo is clearly becoming a hub for USA Hockey.

At a time when the city is undergoing a downtown renaissance.

At a time when its hockey team is desperate for a renaissance of its own.

And that was certainly fast-forwarded Friday with the stunning trades that landed Ryan O’Reilly, Jamie McGinn, Robin Lehner and David Legwand. Like General Manager Tim Murray has said repeatedly, he’s not on any five-year rebuild.

But through all the craziness of the day, Murray said the only four words folks in The 716 needed to hear Friday night: “Buffalo selects Jack Eichel.”

It was said in super-cool fashion. Murray told Eichel beforehand that’s what he was going to do and the kid loved it. Seems like he loved everything all week.

“It goes by so quickly, you don’t realize what’s going on,” Eichel said of his whirlwind draft visit to South Florida. “It’s a process and an event you watch for so long, then it happens, it just goes by so fast. All of a sudden, you’re wearing an NHL jersey and you’re on stage. It’s your dream and it came true. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.”

“It was great,” said Murray, who actually let go a rare smile during the group photo. “I know what it means to the franchise and I know what it means to the city. I’ve been here a short time but I know how important it is. It was one of the special moments in my drafting career.”

There’s a convergence here, an era of optimism unlike any we’ve seen in a long time. Is it too much to put it all on an 18-year-old?

We’re about to find out. But the “Like for Eich” and “In Eich We Trust” aura is everywhere. And it certainly seems warranted.

From my long conversation with Eichel at the Stanley Cup final and some chats here this week, it’s easy to say this is one mature 18-year-old. He’s confident without being cocky. He’s self-assured, but not arrogant. He speaks clearly, not with the whisper that Connor McDavid does. He looks you in the eye. Sometimes he’ll even ask you what the heck your question means.

I got an eye roll from Eichel on Wednesday in Marlins Park that I deserved for a dopey inquiry. Happens to all of us from time to time. I asked it again, in a much better way, and got a good answer. No issues. Remember, the kid called out Murray for revealing what was said during their Scouting Combine interview too. Not many 18-year-olds would do that.

The Sabres forged a relationship with both Eichel and McDavid this year. The love for McDavid was over-the-top at times, but there’s no question Eichel was being watched closely as well when he hit town in September for the All-America Prospects game.

And the folks running the Blue and Gold certainly were all Eichel all the time at the Combine, when they already knew he would be their pick.

“What’s interesting to me non-hockey wise is that the kid came to all those events by himself,” Sabres President Ted Black said. “His parents are working parents and he’s able to get to these things on his own. Doesn’t have a posse around him, good or bad. That really strikes me – the level of maturity for a 17- and 18-year-old kid that’s comfortable and confident to get around on his own without the need of adult supervision.”

After getting picked Friday night and donning his white No. 15 Sabres jersey – Eichel said that could be his real number but, like his pro status, there’s been no decision yet – the new face of the franchise said he had already hit a comfort level with the organization.

“I just want to become a piece of the puzzle,” he said. “Buffalo wants success and they want success soon. I think that’s what’s going to happen.”

Eichel got some limited advice on Buffalo from another former BU star. Cue Rick Jeanneret: Who else? Who else? Former Sabres captain Chris Drury.

“I don’t think he wanted to be too forward about me coming to Buffalo,” Eichel said. “He’s a really good guy. He just kind of gave me a little background on his experience, how much he enjoyed playing in Buffalo. If that’s where I would end up, he thinks I would be a great fit and I’m super excited to be a part of it.”

Eichel gets to come in on a high, when the organization and the town are filled with optimism. He didn’t have to live through what it took to get to this point.

It was a bizarro season unlike any other we’ll ever see. Imagine what it’s going to be like next season debating real hockey issues like forward lines, defense pairs and coaching strategies. Refreshing to say the least.

The Sabres took a beating over this whole situation, deservedly so in a lot of ways from this view. The national media howled in derision at times. One thing to the club’s credit: It has understood the criticism – and ignored it to the point of utter stubbornness.

“I lived this in Pittsburgh. Maybe that’s a blessing or a curse,” Black said. “You can look back at old stories in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and they weren’t very flattering. … When you go through this, it’s not going to be popular but you can’t let that sway you. At the end of the day, you have to say, ‘I really don’t care about any outside distractions. This is our plan and we’re going to stick with it.’

“We knew we wouldn’t get love letters from anyone because it is a difficult process. If you don’t have the stomach to do a rebuild, you’ll be doing it again in three years. That said, it’s nice to come out on the other side of things.”

The other side of insanity is Eichel. He’s been pondering Buffalo since the fall and clearly became enamored with the city and organization during his week at the Combine.

He finally admitted here late Friday night all the “if-Buffalo-takes-me” talk was a ruse. He knew what was going down. It’s exactly what he wanted and what all the fans wanted too.

Said Eichel: “Now that it’s finally set in stone, I can say this is where I wanted to be and it’s a dream come true.”


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