At least on the ice, this has been a normal training camp for Jack Eichel. While his agents continue to work with the Sabres on a long-term contract extension, Eichel goes about his business getting ready for the season with workouts, quiet morning practice sessions and meaningless exhibition games.
It's a far cry from last September, when Eichel was in the middle of a hockey craze that swept up fans across both borders.
Thursday was the one-year anniversary of Team North America's most memorable victory in the World Cup, the 4-3 overtime classic against Sweden in Toronto's Air Canada Centre that left the hockey world begging for more of the young guns who were the talk of the tourney.
Oddly enough, just as black and orange TNA gear was sprouting all over Toronto and Buffalo, it was over. The 23-and-under squad went 2-1 in the tournament, beating Finland and losing to Russia, and didn't advance to the semifinals because of its head-to-head loss to the Russians.
It meant no semifinal against Team Canada, and a potential matchup of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby was forever lost to history. It's expected that Nos. 87 and 97 will be teammates going forward because a future Team North America would likely be changed to a 22-and-under squad so players would be eligible for it only once.
"It was a great experience to be on a team with all those great players," Eichel told The Buffalo News after a recent practice in HarborCenter. "The excitement around the tournament made for a great time. In the end, a lot of us felt our tournament was cut a little bit short but it was a great way to start a hockey season and create a lot of excitement right from the beginning."
This corner was fortunate to view almost all of Team North America's activities up close, from its three-day camp in Montreal's Bell Centre, to its first exhibition game in Quebec City to all three of its action-packed games in Toronto. It was a remarkable process to watch.
That first day in camp, no one knew what to expect. Eichel has often said he looked at the wipe board in the dressing room and was stunned at the lineup he saw.
He was on a team with the likes of McDavid, Auston Matthews, Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon, Jonathan Drouin, Dylan Larkin, Brandon Saad and Mark Scheifele at forward. With a defense that featured Morgan Reilly, Seth Jones, Shayne Gostisbehere and Colton Parayko. And with Matt Murray and John Gibson in goal. Forget kids. Those are all-stars and even Stanley Cup champions on that list.
Looking back now, it seems ridiculous to think many pundits thought Team North America would be outclassed and not win a game.
Camp started Sept. 5. The Sweden game was Sept. 21. Edmonton coach Todd McLellan quickly assimilated a team out of guys who barely knew each other at the start, with the Canadians hanging out only with the Canadians and the Americans sticking with Americans when they got together for a reception on a Montreal hotel rooftop patio the day before they hit the ice.
In the end, it became one of the most unique team-building exercises in hockey history, a 24/7 groupthink completely on fast-forward out of necessity.
"It was a blast to be around those guys every day," Eichel said. "We were all pretty similar because of the ages and that's not what you normally have on a team with a lot of different ages. I don't think any of us had any kids. The majority were very young, just having fun playing hockey without too much to worry about.
"It doesn't take much to come together as a team when you're in that situation. Similar guys, similar interests. It just takes a couple beers at dinner to get to know each other and that was the case. The coaches did a really good job of giving us opportunities to come together."
(Lest anyone start going tsk-tsk-tsk at that quote, remember the drinking age in Canada is 19).
Eichel bounced around through the tournament, practicing on the power play with McDavid, scoring a goal against Finland where he beat Buffalo teammate Rasmus Ristolainen to the puck, seeing his ice time cut against Russia and settling in to a nice slot against Sweden. Eichel centered Gaudreau and Larkin early in the tournament and was with the likes of Saad, Florida's Vincent Trocheck and New York's J.T. Miller in the finale.
(Here's Eichel's goal against Finland)
Team North America ripped out to a 2-0 lead against Sweden in the first 95 seconds on goals by Matthews and Trocheck, the latter assisted by Eichel. Gaudreau missed a penalty shot in that span as well. And remember, Sweden's lineup featured the Sedin brothers, Erik Karlsson, and Henrik Lundqvist in goal. The building was in a complete uproar.
"That was a pretty crazy game right from the start," Eichel said. "That's the way we wanted to play. We made it really exciting and fans wanted to watch us."
MacKinnon won the game in overtime with a sick-mitts deke of Lundqivst and the place went bonkers. So did the players. At the time, everyone thought they had advanced to the semifinals.
"We became fans," McLellan said that night. "I was standing on the bench going 'No, no, no' and 'go, go go.' It was just going back and forth. The energy in the building and the passion of the fans and the players, I've seen a lot of excited players and that bench was very excited. It was a lot of fun."
In hindsight, the coaching staff simply goofed on tiebreakers and should have pushed much harder to win the game in regulation.
"We thought we were in there with a win but obviously we needed some help and didn't get it," Eichel admitted. "But more than that, we were just excited. It was great hockey, a great game and we were excited to win. It's didn't matter about what it meant going forward. We won a big game and we were savoring the moment. The atmosphere in the rink made it a lot of fun, something I'll always remember."
The next day, Russia beat Finland and Team North America was toast. On Sept. 23 in Toronto, the players and coaches toasted each other as they gathered for one final goodbye dinner. Just 18 days after that first practice in Montreal, it was over. But in less than three weeks, Eichel became part of a team that will resonate in hockey history.
Eichel has signed sticks from the tournament as well as his helmet and gloves. He's getting his jersey framed for posterity. He had always been friends with the likes of Matthews, Larkin and especially Gaudreau. What resonates is becoming friends with a guy like Scheifele, whom he didn't know at all before the tournament, and keeping in touch with the Winnipeg star in the wake of their shared experience.
"I was able to talk to him throughout the year last season and not even about hockey," Eichel said. "More about how things were going for him, things he likes doing. He's a real big hockey nerd and I give him credit. He eats, sleeps, breathes hockey and is a good guy to talk to.
"Then I go on the NHL Media Tour to New York a couple weeks ago and there's a bunch of us from Team North America together at the U.S. Open. We're tight now. It was a great opportunity to be with some of the best players in our league and guys who you will hopefully be playing against for many years."
The crackdown on slashing and faceoff violations has become the NHL's No. 1 story in the preseason. Cleaning up the slashes to the hands is long overdue in the wake of the injuries last season to Calgary's Gaudreau and Ottawa defenseman Marc Methot.
There is, however, crabbing far and wide about the strictly enforced faceoff standards, which mandate players must stay behind the lines for the drop of the puck and not infringe upon them or face a two-minute penalty. It's better for the linesmen, who will not get caught in a scrum of the two players, and it will promote skill over brawn in the circle. No early moves, down to the knee for leverage and brawling in there.
Now, the fact is these are not new rules. They're rules the league is choosing to enforce. We'll see if it continues and players adjust or if the league drops back on the enforcement. The sense is the latter may happen, given the universal hue and cry about things.
"The slashing is one thing, but this faceoff rule is an absolute joke," said Boston's Brad Marchand. "That’s how you ruin the game of hockey by putting that in there. They’re going to have to do something about that because we can’t play all year like that. Basically you have to be a statue. You can’t move. It takes away from the center iceman.
“That’s just a joke. I don’t know how you expect guys to step back. Guys are excited to get in there and help out their centerman. I know they’re trying to add a little more offense to the game [with power plays] and make it more exciting, but you don’t want to ruin the game. It’s frustrating for everyone."
Even Jody Clarke, daughter of Flyers legend and Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke, weighed in on the matter on Twitter. Her thought: "Not sure my dad would have ever won a faceoff under the new rules. I've been told he was the league's 'best cheater' in the circle."
Preds name Josi, Ellis
With Mike Fisher retired, the defending Western Conference champion Predators have installed defenseman Roman Josi as captain and created an associate captain position for fellow blueliner Ryan Ellis, who is going to be out until around the new year after knee surgery.
Nashville's three new alternate captains — center Ryan Johansen, forward Filip Forsberg and defenseman Mattias Ekholm — haven't held that title in the NHL. Ellis, meanwhile, served in several leadership positions in his career, including captain of Team Canada during the 2011 World Junior Championships in Buffalo.
“It’s not just a general in charge," said coach Peter Laviolette. "It’s a general, a colonel, a major, a captain, a lieutenant, an officer. We’re just trying to put a little bit more structure and have ownership inside of the room with that leadership.
"I just feel based on Ryan and him being part of the group last year as an alternate, three first-year captains, there’s going to be a little bit chain of command now inside the room."
'Eddie O' update
Blackhawks play-by-play man Pat Foley gave an update on Hawks and NBC analyst Ed Olczyk during the team's first telecast last week. Olcyzk, a beloved figure among hockey media, has been sidelined while dealing with colon cancer.
Foley said Olczyk recently had five hours of surgery and his treatment will require six months of chemotherapy. "This guy is in a battle," Foley said.
Added Hawks star Patrick Kane about the United Center faithful: "I'm sure all 22,000 of us will welcome him back with open arms when he's ready to come back."
Around the boards
* It seems inconceivable to think disgruntled star Matt Duchene starts the season with Colorado. Duchene showed up to camp and grumbled that he was there to honor his contract and serve the fans but the entire league knows he wants out, which leaves the Avalanche struggling for leverage in a deal. While many teams have inquired, there's lots of chatter that Columbus may ultimately be Duchene's destination.
* Big loss in the Atlantic Division as Boston defenseman Torey Krug suffered a nondisplaced fracture of his jaw Tuesday against Detroit and will be reevaluated in three weeks. That means he's certainly going to be out at least the first couple weeks of the season. The Sabres' first meeting with the Bruins is Oct. 21 in TD Garden.
* The disintegration of hockey coverage in the United States took on an even more ominous tone in recent weeks as the Florida Panthers, once covered daily home and away by three major South Florida daily newspapers, are going to struggle to get much coverage at all in any of them.
The Palm Beach Post no longer covers the team and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel laid off longtime beat writer Harvey Fialkov over the summer. The Miami Herald dealt a death blow to Panthers coverage last week with the announcement that writer George Richards, one of the league's top writers and great characters on the NHL beat, would no longer be covering the Panthers on a daily basis.
That's a disgrace. Richards has spent years providing dedicated coverage in a market dominated by NFL and college football, the Miami Heat, high schools and the Miami Marlins. Without him, hockey fans in South Florida would have nothing. Herald management should be ashamed of itself.