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In life and now in death, Kobe Bryant's lessons resonate with Jack Eichel

Mike Harrington

When he was sidelined with a high ankle sprain for nearly two months at the start of the 2016-17 season, Jack Eichel drew plenty of inspiration from Kobe Bryant.

A year earlier, Showtime released an 83-minute documentary entitled "Kobe Bryant's Muse" that took a deep dive into the career of the Los Angeles Lakers legend and paid particular emphasis to his 2013 rehab from a severe Achilles injury. The Buffalo Sabres' captain returned to practice from the All-Star break Monday and said the film made a huge impact on his mindset to overcome adversity as he was turning 19.

"He's obviously on the back end of his career and I just look at the way he rehabbed himself, the way that he worked, the way that he did everything to get himself back to play again," Eichel said. "Even though their team wasn't great, I thought it was motivational for somebody who has done so much to feel like he had more to prove and had so much more to give.

"Even though he was whatever he was of age at that time (34), I thought it was a great documentary. He was a tremendous athlete, tremendous competitor. He set the bar for work ethic and compete for so many other athletes. There's so many different things you read and see about him. His dedication to his craft honestly makes you want to be better every day."

Eichel was in his downtown townhouse Sunday when he received a text from his father, Bob, with the news of the helicopter crash in Los Angeles County, Calif., that claimed the lives of Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others. Growing up in Boston, Eichel had followed Bryant's career closely. That was topped of course by the 2008 and 2010 NBA Finals that the Celtics and Lakers split.

"I don't know there's been a tragedy quite like this in sports in my memory," Eichel said. "He's 41 years of age, arguably one of the best basketball players of all time. His daughter being 13 and the two of them going to a basketball game, and the other families affected, too. Your thoughts and prayers go to their families."

In moments like these, you think of athletes gone far too soon. Names like Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson, Len Bias and Hank Gathers had more games to play. Like Bryant, baseball Hall of Famer Roy Halladay had an entire post-playing life still to build. Bryant's death, however, is global and stretches far outside the NBA.

Soccer great Neymar made the "2-4" for Bryant's numbers with his fingers after scoring a goal Sunday in Paris. Australian tennis star Nick Kyrgios choked back tears while wearing a No. 8 gold Bryant jersey during warmups Monday at the Australian Open. Derek Jeter wrote about his relationship with Bryant on the Players Tribune and Alex Rodriguez did likewise with a Twitter thread and on Instagram.

Bryant had plenty of impact on hockey players as well. Washington star Alex Ovechkin tweeted about Bryant on Sunday and spoke in Montreal about their meetings in Los Angeles, which included Bryant giving him a signed jersey and pair of sneakers.

Sabres coach Ralph Krueger said his family is currently in Switzerland, not a top European basketball country, and Bryant's death is front-page news there.

"I love world-class athletes and I get goosebumps thinking about the amount of amazing athletic performances I saw from Kobe," Krueger said. "If you look at how he was working on his next stage of life, that's being spoken about a lot because it's a tough step for a superstar like that. It's extremely tragic to have a life cut so short from somebody who had the opportunity now to inspire so many people and that's gone.

"That's gone forever. Nobody can take that space. I always find that tragic because the world needs good leaders, the world needs good examples and the world needs people that can inspire other people. The world lost a big inspiration yesterday."

Eichel agreed.

"The impact he had on athletes across the world was greater than just basketball," Eichel said. "Somebody like myself he impacted so much and he would never know that."

Winger Kyle Okposo grew up in the 1990s in Minnesota and said he was a basketball fan first, before he grew into hockey. He grew up in the days of Michael Jordan and at the start of Bryant's career coming out of high school in the Philadelphia area. Okposo, whose wife is expecting their fourth child in April, was particularly touched by the death of Bryant's daughter when he tweeted about the tragedy Sunday night.

"Everybody talks about that Mamba Mentality and he had it every day," Okposo said. "Just watching him from afar and how competitive he was, how fiery he was, it was amazing to see his whole career and what he did. Then to transition to becoming a family man. ... Just all the things he was doing for women's basketball with daughter, the schools, the businesses. He was just getting started with his life after playing. To lose somebody like that, he was a larger-than-life figure. He was a titan. He was a global icon and he will be sorely missed."

Okposo was among a group of Sabres to attend LeBron James' first game as a Laker in Staples Center in October 2018, on the night the Sabres beat the Kings in a matinee the same day. He said it was a thrill to see James and to see a game in Bryant's house.

"I saw Kobe play live in Philly once," Okposo added. "Saw him in the elevator at the hotel. We were in the same hotel and I'll never forget it. Didn't say anything to him but he just had that presence about him.

"My wife and I were sitting on the couch last night and I must have said 10 times, 'I can't believe he's gone.' My wife knows nothing about basketball. She couldn't care less but she knew Kobe Bryant and understood the impact that he had on especially Los Angeles but on a global scale. Just amazingly sad."

Even in death, just as in his documentary, Eichel said he is taking lessons from one of his athletic heroes.

"The bigger message through everything that happened is how fragile and precious life is. You can't take a day for granted," Eichel said. "I think it was a really big eye-opener for so many people. ... It's so important to enjoy it every day and make the most of it. Something like that happens, that's real life. That's not wins and losses and standings and points. That's somebody who was a father, a husband, a friend. I think that puts a lot of things in perspective."

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