NORTH CHELMSFORD, Mass. – An old story that crawled across New England’s pubs for years involved Tom Glavine, the Hall of Fame left-handed pitcher who was born in the Boston suburb of Concord, Mass., raised in nearby Billerica, and won 305 games in the big leagues. ¶ According to folklore, shortly after Glavine was selected by the Atlanta Braves in the second round of the 1984 amateur baseball draft but before he was taken in the fourth round of the NHL draft by the Los Angeles Kings, his father pulled him aside and delivered a life lesson. ¶ Fred Glavine led his 18-year-old son to the backyard, looked him square in the eye, rotated him 360 degrees and essentially corkscrewed the kid into his roots. ¶ “I want you to take a good look around,” Fred Glavine said, “and remember where you came from.”
Jack Eichel heard the tale numerous times from his own father while growing up a New England hockey prodigy. Bob Eichel is a simple and unassuming man, and for years he resisted the temptation to predict greatness for his kid. But he must have known what was coming in the years ahead.
After all, everybody else did.
Bob insisted his 18-year-old son stay true to his upbringing, appreciate the people who helped him along the way and never lose sight of their family values. It was non-negotiable. He made it clear that he and his wife, Anne, weren’t trying to build a great hockey player. Their goal was to raise a good human being.
Jack became both.
“He’s a character,” said Eichel’s best friend and former teammate, Danny Ferri. “He’s a funny kid, he really is. He’s got a great sense of humor. He’s always in a good mood. … There’s always a good vibe.”
The people back home had a recurring message about Eichel in the days after he was taken second overall by the Buffalo Sabres. They were the people who knew him when he was a boy, long before he was held up as the greatest U.S. hockey player – the greatest anywhere, in their eyes – in at least a decade.
“Bob and Anne never let him be bigger than he should be,” said Mike Rogers, who for years has been close friends with the Eichel clan. “There was always a spot to put him. I think that’s why he’s so well grounded. He’s a better kid than he is a hockey player. That line is used by just about everybody that talks about him.”
In no other time in recent memory has an American hockey player been trumpeted the way Eichel has been over the past year. He has been hailed as a savior for the Sabres, who selected him as the centerpiece of their rebuild. They’re hoping he can help turn around the franchise in a revitalized city that’s starving for a championship.
It’s a tall order.
Expectations are already through the roof and should be tempered. Eichel will be under immense pressure to perform at the highest level. His journey is bound to include potholes, slumps every player experiences, inconsistency that comes with youth and other challenges common to the learning curve.
His hockey resume reveals the youngest player to win the Hobey Baker Award, given to the top U.S. college player. He led the nation in scoring as a freshman and lifted Boston University to the national championship game. He hasn’t played against players in his own age group since he was 13 years old.
Assuming the plan falls into place, Eichel will have nine-plus professional seasons behind him before he celebrates his 28th birthday. The average age of an NHL player last year was 27.8 years.
You know about his speed and ungodly skill. You checked his statistics at BU and found he had 26 goals and 71 points in 40 games. His strength was measured last month during the NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo, which revealed he’s considerably stronger than his 6-foot-2, 196-pound frame suggests.
Sabres fans will appreciate intangible qualities that fail to show up in analytics – the high-speed hockey processor between his ears, his desire to be the best, his work ethic and homespun personality – more than his obvious natural talent. In the months and years ahead, it will all become obvious in Buffalo.
He said all the right things before the draft but did the lottery math and secretly was hoping to land in Buffalo, partly because of its proximity to home. Boston, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Montreal, Ottawa and Buffalo are within driving distance. In truth, he might have stayed at Boston University for another season if the lottery had worked out differently and he landed in Edmonton.
Regardless, Eichel knew long before he was drafted he would become a millionaire, but didn’t want to assume anything. On the day he signed his three-year entry-level deal with the Sabres that could be worth more than $2 million per season, he didn’t own a credit card. The only major purchase he had planned was a Jeep.
Never one to assume anything or take things for granted, Eichel’s said his first goal in Buffalo was to make the team. It was in line with the way he was raised. Eichel is not short on confidence, but his parents long ago made it clear that nothing is guaranteed in life. Perhaps that helped drive him.
Maybe that’s why they say he’s always been a better person than a player. He was held to a high standard away from the rink. His own standards, his need to push forward and not look back, kept him accountable on the ice. His hockey instincts, his ability to play the game as if it were in slow motion, were his only gift from above.
“I think about everything I sacrificed, everything I gave up that the other kids didn’t,” Eichel said while overlooking Chelmsford High. “People I know ask themselves why they didn’t have the same success that I did. I had God-given talent, but I worked harder than anyone. I wanted to be the best player in the world. It’s why I had success.”
“If he had a bad game, and he didn’t have many of them, he was at the rink the next day trying to get better,” Ferri said. “Not many people were all business 100 percent of the time. He was. He was the hardest-working kid I’ve ever seen.”
Just so you know, Eichel’s quite familiar with Buffalo. Six years ago, he played in the national Pee Wee tournament at the Northtown Center of Amherst (formerly the Pepsi Center). He began dating Erin Basil, whose family owns several car dealerships in the region, during his freshman year at BU. She attends Northeastern University. They met through a mutual friend from Western New York.
Eichel and Buffalo look like a perfect marriage.
“I agree,” Eichel said last week while driving around Boston. “Everything happens for a reason. It really couldn’t have worked out much better than it did. I really believe that. I think it’s the right place. I’m excited to get started. I can’t wait. I want to be a part of getting it turned around. And I think we will.”
So who is Jack Eichel and where did he come from?
The answers can found in North Chelmsford, Mass., a working-class village (pop. 9,300) about 30 miles northwest of Boston where nothing is given and everything is earned. Lines drawn between North Chelmsford and surrounding Chelmsford (pop. 33,000) are less geographical and more philosophical.
New England’s picturesque landscape is rich in history and decorated with ageless homes carved into hillsides along winding streets. You wonder how so many architects could get so much right in the same region. Behind the charm and beauty are varying attitudes and values from town to town.
North Chelmsford’s people, many of whom have lived there for generations, are as proud as they are unpretentious. They come with a certain edge and grittiness to their personalities and view themselves as a little tougher, less entitled and harder working than many in more affluent Chelmsford. Eichel could be described precisely the same way.
“It’s more blue-collar,” Eichel said. “The people have a little more of a chip on their shoulder and are more competitive.”
Eichel was raised in a modest white house on a cul-de-sac, where he spent hours wearing out roller blades and street-hockey sticks while circling the quarter-mile track in his neighborhood. His family is like many in Buffalo, made of good people who are humble to the bone and making an honest living.
Bob Eichel works for F.W. Webb, a plumbing supply company in nearby Lowell. Anne is a nurse at Boston Medical Center. Bob’s way of decompressing from NHL draft weekend was working a 12-hour shift that started at 6 a.m. the day after they came home. Anne was back for her 7 a.m. shift at the hospital.
Eichel’s curly hair comes from his mother, the longer frame from his father. They come with strong accents common in New England, where people pahk the cah. No wonder why a bartender in Princeton Station (see: Swannie House), when asked if she knew Bob Eichel, thought someone was looking for a woman named Barb.
“Oh, Bawb,” she said.
Eichel’s parents wanted what was best for their two children without giving them the world. Jack and his sister, Jessie, a former rower at Merrimack College who now works with the mentally disabled, didn’t have televisions in their bedrooms. Jack was among the last of his friends to have a video-game system.
Inside their home, there are few signs Eichel is a star. There is no shrine outlining his accomplishments, no framed jerseys showing how fast and how far hockey has taken him, no signs of a lavish lifestyle. Heaven forbid anything that would separate them from other families in North Chelmsford.
For everything that he accomplished at a young age and all the fanfare surrounding him over the past year, he’s remarkably grounded and mature beyond his years. He also at ease with the attention and understands he will someday need to use his voice to get his own message across.
“His parents always kept him in line,” said Peter Fish, Eichel’s agent. “They were always, ‘Appreciate everything and anything that has been given to you and take nothing for granted.’ He’s been that way. When he meets people, they walk away saying, ‘You would never know that kid is a potential all-star. He’s so down to earth.’ ”
In the far corner of the family room rests the Hobey Baker trophy and a ring that likely will never see his finger. The display is less noticeable than the pull-up bar that has hung in the kitchen doorway for seven years.
In the basement, a concrete wall is decorated with black skid marks from pucks going through a hockey goal that long ago saw better days. Its crossbar and posts, flattened as if run over by a car, were overrun by slappers. The shooting area is about the size of a prison cell, but it was his boyhood sanctuary.
“He was always shooting pucks,” Anne Eichel said. “We could hear him. We had to have the door replaced outside on the screen house because he hit it so many times. It was all marked up. … He would get my mother-in-law to play rug hockey all the time. Anyone who walked in the house, he would get them to play rug hockey.”
Eichel once taped pictures of players who were given scholarships before him on the concrete wall to remind him how hard he needed to work. Outdated weights and a bench are tucked in a corner. Added up, a picture emerges of a determined young athlete with an old soul who worked for everything.
It explains why he quickly became smitten with Terry Pegula upon realizing he was the Sabres’ owner. Eichel met him before the draft and figured he was the team’s head scout. He realized only after the Sabres selected him that he actually owned the franchise.
“What billionaire carries a flip phone?” Eichel said. “It says something about him, I think. He’s so down to earth. I love him. I think he’s a great guy.”
The old-school values that long ago were instilled by Eichel’s environment are permanent fixtures in his character. He’s a friendly, well-mannered young man who happens to be a whale of hockey player.
No matter how many goals he scores or how much money he makes, North Chelmsford will forever be in his blood.
“I hope so,” his father said in his family room with Jack well within earshot. “It’s important, you know what I mean? We work for a living. He’s going to work for a living, but he’s going to have a better living than we did. But it’s important to remember where he came from.”
A step ahead
The message stayed with Eichel even when some in his hometown resented him for reasons he never fully understood. Jealousy? Perhaps. Maybe it was because he always played hockey elsewhere. He started in New Hampshire when he was 4 years old because Chelmsford wouldn’t allow kids younger than 5.
Eichel was so far ahead of players his age that he had outgrown Chelmsford High before he was eligible to play there. He left after his freshman year for the U.S. National Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. People know his name more than they know him. To a degree, he feels like an outsider in his own hometown.
Some begrudged him for being too good for local hockey. If they only knew he didn’t leave for money or fame. He was chasing the game.
“It’s my dream to play in the NHL,” he said. “That’s what I want to do. All that other stuff is really good. But you think about the fact that you get to play hockey for a living. Every day, you wake up and go to the rink. Some people wake up and go to 9-to-5 jobs that they hate. I wake up and go play hockey.”
Starting in sixth grade, his summer routine included working out with weights several days a week starting at 9:15 a.m., and skating at noon before starting the remainder of his day. He kept the same basic schedule for years.
He can’t count how many rides he mooched from aunts, uncles and friends while his parents worked. One way or another, he found a way. When the other kids were playing in the park or going to the movies, he was focused on a singular goal. He didn’t roll out of bed and become a top talent in the NHL.
Eichel started playing for the Junior Bruins, the premier team in Boston for players 20 years old and younger, when he was only 13. He didn’t score for two months before netting his first goal Oct. 28, his 14th birthday. The 5-foot-8, 140-pounder finished the season as their leading scorer. His overtime winner advanced the Junior Bruins to the 2011 national final, which they won.
He never cared enough about his own statistics to keep them, but he estimated that 100-point seasons were common for 25-game schedules and figured he had some seasons with 200 points or more. At 15, before Eichel left for Michigan, Junior Bruins coach Chris Masters handed him a pen with his name engraved and said, “Use this to sign your first contract.”
Last week, Eichel did.
Former Niagara coach Blaise MacDonald had a front-row seat for three years when Eichel was a kid. MacDonald was coaching UMass-Lowell at the time and his son, Cameron, was Eichel’s friend and teammate. MacDonald had the kid pegged for the NHL before he was 12 years old.
“You can just tell when a player has it,” said MacDonald, now coaching at Colby College in Maine. “You can look at all the intangibles, but between the boards and glass, he had it at a very young age. When you put it all together with the intangibles, this kid has taken a road many people thought he would take.
“It’s a cliché, but he really was a team-first guy,” MacDonald said. “His strength was almost his weakness. He always tried to please others. He would pass the puck and help everyone else out. Maybe he should have been more selfish at times. His self-awareness at a young age was off the charts.
“That’s Bob and Anne right there.”
Eichel crammed three years of high school into two years with summer courses and tutors because he was ready to play in college. He spent two years with the U.S. development team and was 17 when he started at Boston University.
In other words, he could have been a senior at Chelmsford High. Instead, he was leading the nation in scoring for BU. He grew up a Boston College fan, but he chose BU because he thought the program better prepared him to play in the NHL. It was all geared toward joining the best in the world.
What you see today was years in the making.
“I didn’t care what anyone else was doing,” Eichel said. “I was going to work out after school. I was working out every morning and skating in the summer. I never made an excuse not to do it. When I didn’t do it, I felt terribly guilty.”
His commitment to excellence, or maybe it was his disdain for failure, never wavered. He spent a full summer one year improving his first three steps, another working on his backhand. He’s now among the most explosive skaters you’ll see with a deadly backhand in his arsenal.
When he was 11, after hitting a home run over 40-foot trees behind a fence 200 feet from home plate, he started swinging for the fences and fell into a slump. One morning before playing in the state tournament, he spent four hours – four hours – in a batting cage because he couldn’t stomach failure.
Last week, he was annoyed after missing a morning workout with weights the Monday after the draft and longed for the rhythm that comes with routine. He drove about 45 minutes for a session with Ellen Spicuzza, an orthopedic nurse specialist at Mind/Body Connection who works with NHL and NFL players for $200 an hour. “We’re turbo-charging him; we’re turning him into Gumby,” she said. “These guys are fine-tuned machines. They’re performance players. You give this guy more power? Are you kidding me? He’ll become a Lamborghini amphibian.”
Afterward, Eichel drove another 45 minutes for an hour-long skate with skills coach Kim Brandvold at Merrimack College. He spent a chunk of his time with an 8-year-old sled hockey player who was sharing the ice. People in his inner circle say they never saw him turn down an autograph request from a kid. A day after signing his first contract, he visited the Lion’s Den playroom at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.
“You live a lifetime to see a talent like that,” said Brandvold, who has worked with Eichel for four years. “The talent speaks for itself. It’s how hard he works, how much he loves to play hockey and the effort he puts in. The best part is how well he treats everybody everywhere he goes. He’s as good as they come.”
Eichel is in terrific shape, but the treatment with Spicuzza and the skate with Brandvold weren’t enough. He was calling around for local weightlifting partners Tuesday evening because he missed training that morning. He was more consumed by the missed workout than signing his first professional contract the next day.
“There aren’t enough hours in the day for me,” he said. “Seriously.”
The perfect match
Eichel’s one season with Boston University was the most enjoyable of his career, in part because he was home again. He bolted for the U.S. National Development Program when he was 15, leaving his Boston accent behind. The transition to college couldn’t have gone smoother for a true freshman.
“He made the game look so effortless,” said Evan Rodriguez, who had 21 goals and 40 points on Eichel’s line at BU and since has signed with the Sabres as a free agent. “It’s not difficult to play with a player like him. It seems everybody has chemistry with him because he makes everyone around him so much better.”
OK, so he was skewered on social media after chugging a beer and saying, “Buffalo, I’m coming for ya” on a video. He wasn’t the first college freshman to make a regrettable decision.
“I was drunk. I did it,” Eichel said. “I don’t have anything to hide. The majority of people laughed about it. … Time was the biggest deal. It was one of the biggest lessons I learned. I couldn’t just be a college kid.”
Well, Jack, Buffalo was waiting for ya.
Eichel loved BU but left with little to prove. He dominated in his only season and had the NHL tugging at him. Now he has a greater challenge ahead. The people in his inner circle suggested this is when he’s most dangerous. Mounting expectations are fueling his healthy insecurity.
Two years ago, his response to being left off USA Hockey’s invitation list for World Junior camp was working out four times a day. Three months later, he was on the team. A year later, he was named captain. This year, he wants to show that he’s the best player in the draft.
It’s nothing against Connor McDavid, who was selected first overall. McDavid was celebrated across Canada as a can’t-miss superstar at age 12. For him, the NHL was a given. For Eichel, it’s an obsession. Many believe, when all variables are considered, Eichel is better suited for Buffalo.
“Honestly, it couldn’t be any more serendipity with everything synching up,” MacDonald said. “Given the opportunity and environment and where Buffalo is at, the transformation that the city and the Sabres are going through, it’s a perfect match. He will relate very, very well to the people of Buffalo.”
“Fred Smerlas (former Bills nose tackle) is on our sports-talk radio, and he talks highly of Buffalo,” said Rogers, the family friend. “He always calls it a working-class city. People work every day. That’s what’s ingrained in the community out there. That’s where Jack comes from.
“Buffalo and Jack’s upbringing are almost mirrored except for the dot on the map. It could very well be a suburb of Buffalo. If it doesn’t work out, it won’t be for a lack of trying. He’s one of the most determined people I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The trick for Eichel will be staying within his game and not pressing to meet expectations. He has been in this situation numerous times, but he’s bound to make mistakes while he adjusts to the NHL. There’s also no way of predicting how players will respond to more money than they can comprehend.
Based on the people around him, that will not be an issue. He’s had his head on straight for years, thanks to his parents and the people back home who nurtured him. Bob Eichel drove home the message, the way Tom Glavine’s father taught his son. Take a good look around, kid, and never lose sight of your roots.
Eichel will need no reminder come Oct. 8, when he makes his NHL debut – assuming he makes the team, of course – at home against the Ottawa Senators. It happens to be his father’s birthday.
“He’s always telling me, ‘Remember the people who were here when you weren’t Jack Eichel the superstar hockey player,’ ” Eichel said. “ ‘Remember where you came from. This is the reason you are where you are.’ He’s always been on me about that and deservedly so. I am who I am because of where I’m from.”