On the streets of Buffalo and in front of the relentless onslaught of cameras and microphones, Jack Eichel is a superstar.
“I wouldn’t really say it like that,” he said sheepishly Monday. “It’s the first taste of being somebody who is highly touted, I guess you could say. People have been talking, and obviously there’s a lot of expectations around me. It’s something I really try not to focus on.”
Instead, his focus is on being a good, fun teammate. Eichel opened Sabres development camp with 45 other prospects in First Niagara Center, and he wasn’t there as the No. 2 overall draft pick and face of the franchise. He was there as an 18-year-old trying to get comfortable in a building full of strangers.
The few people who knew him said Eichel has a way of getting comfortable quickly.
“He’s a little bit of a goofball sometimes,” former USA Hockey teammate Hudson Fasching said. “He messes around.”
The locker room silliness serves as a quality ice breaker. Eichel shows he’s one of the guys, as teammates typically gravitate toward him.
Then the workouts start. He’s no longer just one of the guys. He’s an icon, the kind of person who makes peers work harder and can draw more than 1,000 fans inside on one of the most glorious afternoons of the summer.
“He understands what he has to do,” Fasching said. “He jokes around a lot, but he really does work hard. It seems like a lot of things for him are effortless, but he still puts the effort in.”
Eichel didn’t have to do much on the ice Monday. He skated for less than an hour while taking part in basic passing and shooting drills. Still, the fans cheered. They roared when his skates touched the arena ice for the first time, and they audibly gasped when he scored into the top corner. He heard it all.
“Yeah, it was pretty cool,” Eichel said. “I figured there would be a lot of people here with the practice open to the public.”
Eichel has gotten to know Buffalonians well during the last six weeks. During the last few months, he’s also gotten to know Czechs, Floridians, Chicagoans and Canadians. He’s been on a whirlwind tour, and he’s thrilled to know he’ll be in one place for the rest of the week.
“I actually feel kind of bad for him because I don’t think he’s stopped and been in one place for more than a week since the season ended,” said former Boston University teammate Evan Rodrigues. “Now that he’s here, he’s going to get comfortable.”
There are few places where Eichel is more comfortable than in a weight room. The Sabres’ prospects will do plenty of off-ice training, so Eichel will be in his element.
“I want to get a lot stronger, so right at this point in the summer I’m working on putting some weight on, I guess,” he said. “In terms of on the ice, just playing away from the puck, just being ready no matter if I have the puck, if I don’t, moving my feet when I don’t have it, getting to top speed, catching pucks at top speed. That way the defenders have a lot less of a chance to react to me. It was a great feeling to finally be out there and get skating again ... it was just great to be on the ice.”
Fans, scouts and hockey people have predicted greatness for Eichel. His peers know why.
“He does everything well,” Fasching said. “That’s what makes him so special. He doesn’t have a weakness.”
Said Rodrigues: “He’s obviously a special player. He’ll make a difference at the next level.”
He’ll make a difference this week.
“It’s the first day,” Eichel said. “Everyone’s kind of a little bit hesitant at first, but I think as the week goes on people start to loosen up and get more comfortable around everyone, and I think that’s when everyone starts playing their best hockey.
“I’m just trying to go out there and be myself on the ice every day, try and get better, be myself around the guys in the locker room. I think that’s what’s made me successful, and that’s the person that I am, so I just try to stick to that identity.”