SPRING HILL, Tenn. -- There's a family with Buffalo roots in the Nashville suburbs enjoying the Predators' Stanley Cup run, even though Mom grew up as a Penguins fan in Pittsburgh. But what the Gworeks are really waiting for is the day Jack Eichel can get the Sabres back to the playoffs and maybe even visit Nashville for another Cup final.
Welcome to the home of The Eichel Tower.
The story of the Gworeks was featured in February during an MSG intermission video that was also published on Sabres.com and played on the jumbotron between periods in KeyBank Center. It was one of the more memorable pieces of the season put together by the Sabres' New York Emmy Award-winning video crew.
It all started during a game in Ottawa in January, 2016 when Sabres play-by-play man Dan Dunleavy used the phrase "The Eichel Tower" to describe a goal from Eichel in a game against the Senators in Canadian Tire Centre. (Eiffel Tower/Eichel Tower, get it?). C.J. Gworek, then 7 at the time, suggested to his dad that they should build an Eichel Tower of their own with pucks to signify each goal from the Sabres star.
Here's the story of @EichelTower615.
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) February 10, 2017
"As soon as CJ heard it, his head kind of snapped around to me and his eyes got real big," John Gworek said in the video of the Dunleavy call. Things have taken off from there.
How much Buffalo is in the Gworek household?
An out-of-town reporter seeking the house on a quiet suburban street about 40 minutes from downtown didn't have to worry about addresses Thursday evening. The car in the driveway with the Bills and Sabres decals on the window gave it away. The name of the family's ultra-friendly 1 1/2-year-old cavapoo poodle/spaniel mix? Hobbs. As in Roy Hobbs, the Robert Redford baseball hero from the filmed-in-Buffalo 80s classic "The Natural."
That'd great, I didn't know they still did that. C.J. loves that movie ... we even named our dog Hobbs because of it. pic.twitter.com/RBUOMrTyex
— TheEichelTower (@EichelTower615) April 23, 2017
The family playroom that houses the Eichel Tower, which sits on a shelf in one corner of the room, includes pieces of John Gworek's memorabilia like old Sabres jerseys and even a 70s-era Erie County Savings Bank poster that featured the Bills, Sabres and Braves.
John Gworek, 46, is a Kenmore native who attended Canisius High School for two years before his family moved to Dubois, Pa. He met his wife, Elise, when they both attended Indiana (Pa.) University. Elise Gworek grew up a Penguins and Steelers fan, remembering how she used to wear a No. 75 Steelers jersey for Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene.
John Gworek said he got the idea to create a Twitter account about the tower in part to teach his son about social media and thus @EichelTower615 was born, with the number emblematic of the family's Tenneessee area code. It has surpassed 3,000 followers and also includes plenty of other Eichel-related links.
Each time Eichel scores in a game, C.J. grabs a puck from the family stash and places it atop the tower. An updated picture is then tweeted from the Eichel Tower account. There are currently 48 numbered pucks in the tower, one for each goal in Eichel's two NHL seasons.
Had to reconfigure the Tower again after two more goals. Will we get to 50 before it moves to a new location in the room for next season? pic.twitter.com/9iaTVe9DkU
— TheEichelTower (@EichelTower615) March 26, 2017
The No. 24 puck is labeled in gold instead of white to signify the final count from Eichel's rookie year, which also happened to be the number of goals he scored in his injury-shortened sophomore season. There's a special puck at the top signed by Eichel himself.
Dunleavy and the Sabres got wind of the tower on Twitter and contacted the family. A video crew from the team and in-arena host Lauren Hall, on the road for a Sabres Road Crew event in Nashville, came to the home for an interview. They also arranged for the family to attend the pregame skate the day of the Sabres' Jan. 24 visit to Bridgestone Arena (skates are usually not open to fans of the visiting team).
C.J. wore his navy blue Eichel jersey and John was resplendent in 70s powder blue Gilbert Perreault. Kindergarten-bound daughter Dina also had a Sabres jersey on. What the family held secret from C.J. was that the team was planning a meet-and-greet with Eichel after the skate.
So while C.J. was thrilled to stickhandle pucks thrown to him by Anders Nilsson with a stick he got from Sam Reinhart, the real prize was meeting Eichel and getting a signed puck for the tower. The surprise worked.
"I was thinking 'What's happening?' C.J. Gworek said when he saw Eichel coming up the arena stairs to say hello. "He said hi, I said hi, then he gave me a puck, signed pictures. He asked me if the tower was my idea."
It's easy for an NHL player to make an impression on a 9-year-old. But what Eichel did that afternoon resonated with a pair of parents as well.
"I'll tell you what," said Elise Gworek. "I was looking to buy myself an Eichel jersey that day after how nice that guy was to us."
"He spent more time than I ever thought he would just because they were on that gameday schedule," said John Gworek, an editor for Athlon Sports who wrote a first-person account of the day for Sabres.com. "He was in no hurry. It was nice. Jack really drew C.J. out because obviously in a situation like that he was starstruck. He just kept asking C.J. questions until it turned into a conversation and I really appreciated it."
Father and son headed back to Bridgestone in the evening for the game and what happened that night? The Sabres rallied from a 4-2 deficit for a 5-4 win -- with Eichel scoring his second of the game and perhaps his goal of the season to win it in overtime over the eventual Western Conference champions.
"I almost flipped over the rail in front of us," C.J. said of the winning goal.
"He jumped up big time so that was fun," John Gworek said. "If the Sabres had lost 5-0, we would have said, 'That was amazing day for CJ' and everything. But to have it go that way, you couldn't have written that."
C.J. Gworek plays center in the Junior Predators program, and has played three times between periods of Preds games in Bridgestone Arena. He's also practiced there several times and one of the program's most notable coaches is former Buffalo and Nashville forward J.P. Dumont. He played a season of Mite hockey with the sons of former Pred and current Penguins elder statesman Matt Cullen.
He wears No. 15 because of Eichel. Eichel even tweeted C.J. a happy birthday wish on April 5, the day of the Sabres' home finale, and a good luck wish for one of his hockey games.
"Absolutely above and beyond on Jack's part," John Gworek said.
The family is happy about the Predators' run as well, with C.J. Gworek listing defenseman P.K. Subban as his favorite player.
"There's started to be expectations here but there's so many different things about how they were able to build this team," John Gworek said. "As excited as people are about it and as much as it's grown, there's been one GM and two coaches. You couldn't do that in a market that had any expectations. For a long time they were happy to have a team and had to really build it."
Elise Gworek may have been a Penguins fan in her youth but there's no discord in the house over this series.
"I grew up in Pittsburgh but I've discovered levels of being a fan," she said. "My brother played hockey and we rooted for the Steelers and Penguins even when we lived in Arizona for a time but I don't relate to John's level of fandom. This is a man who cried at the kitchen table when Mr. Pegula bought the team in Buffalo. You don't see a Penguins flag flying outside -- but you can be sure if Buffalo was in it, the house would be painted.
"Truthfully -- and this is going to sound all mom -- my favorite team is whoever C.J. plays for. I'm happy no matter who wins. Any time my hometown is mentioned, I get excited about that. But C.J. played for the Junior Predators and my kids were both born here. That to me is just as special and I'm also for the underdog. The Penguins have won it a lot and I think it would be great if someone else got a shot."
With hockey talk abuzz in these parts, the celebrity continues for The Eichel Tower family. C.J. Gworek did a slideshow teacher-for-a-day project on hockey to wrap up third grade.
"He highlighted some of the top players. He showed them equpiment and the rules," Elise Gworek said. "Grown-ups were asking questions. There's a lot of kids that play sports but hockey is still growing here."
"The kids are knowing more about it here than the adults because they're growing up with hockey," John Gworek said. "In 20 years, it's really grown. When I first came here, it was nothing like this. Now you go to a game and it's a much more knowledgeable crowd."
John Gworek said a parent on another team in his son's league congratulated him on the Sabres' video treatment of his son and he he stills hears from people learning about the video and the Twitter project.
"Then it starts going around Facebook and you hear even more," he said. "People are like, 'You're the guy from Buffalo and I'm like 'Yeah, my son is the Eichel Tower kid.' It's still a small community of hockey so everybody kind of knows who he is."