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Jack Eichel hopeful, cautious when asked about Sabres resuming season

Unprecedented social distancing measures used to combat the coronavirus have kept Jack Eichel inside his Buffalo home since the Sabres' season was suspended March 12.

Eichel's workouts are limited to his personal gym and instructions are delivered by his various trainers on video conference calls. The 23-year-old captain has spent his down time listening to his collection of vinyl records, reading informative books or magazines and, like the rest of us, sitting on the couch watching television.

"Just trying to stay busy is the biggest thing," Eichel said during a conference call Monday.

It's unclear how long Eichel's new routine will last. The National Hockey League's initial return-to-play plan was altered after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended against gatherings of more than 50 people. The longer the pause lasts, the less likely the Sabres will be able to play their final 13 games.

Eichel, like Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, is holding out hope that he and his teammates can achieve some closure. However, even the hockey-obsessed Eichel had trouble speculating on how the league could resume its season. For once, Eichel is having trouble focusing on the sport in which he's become a superstar.

“Yeah, I mean, I think you can always run through a million different possibilities and scenarios in your head," Eichel said. "You always want to try and have yourself included in the mix, in the playoffs. ... But I think at this moment, everyone’s just sort of, I think their minds are off of hockey and just kind of trying to figure out how to control this pandemic the best we can and just figure out a way to be safe and stay healthy through the situation. In my mind, obviously I love hockey and it means so much to me, but I think right now it’s kind of been put on the back burner. A lot of my thoughts go toward my family and health and the people I care about and all the people that are dealing with this. There’s so much more at stake right now than hockey games so it’s really tough to say."

Eichel was forced to talk hockey Monday when he was one of eight Atlantic Division players to address the media in a video conference call. He expressed well wishes to his fans in Buffalo and his hometown, Boston, while providing a glimpse into his life that, in some ways, has been turned upside down.

Eichel spoke about the importance of everyone doing their part in combating the spread of the pandemic, which has overwhelmed health care systems and halted sports across the globe. He also revealed that his mother, Anne, who works in ambulatory surgery at Boston Medical Center, is home while his father, Bob, recovers from shoulder surgery.

"Obviously, you wouldn't want her going in," Eichel said. "It's such a high risk and credit to all the medical professionals that have been on the front lines and really taking this thing head-on. When you have a loved one in that situation, you just want them to be as safe as possible, so I will say I'm happy that my mom is at home right now and doing her part in self-quarantining."

Eichel has resisted the urge to make the six-and-a-half hour drive to visit his family in Boston. Text messages have served as his line of communication with teammates, coaches, team trainers and General Manager Jason Botterill.

The Sabres haven't been together since March 12, when their plane arrived in Buffalo following an unusual series of events in Montreal. Eichel was at a team dinner the previous night when news broke that the NBA was suspending its season after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tested positive for the coronavirus.

Buffalo's coaching staff, including Krueger, arrived at Bell Centre the following morning, only to be told to return to their hotel. Each of the league's 31 teams were awaiting word on next steps, though the Sabres weren't expecting to play their scheduled game in Montreal that night.

Eichel explained the situation became "a lot more real" that weekend when the NHL and Sabres provided guidelines to players, including a mandatory period of self-quarantine. The league has since had four players test positive for Covid-19: two from the Ottawa Senators and two from the Colorado Avalanche.

It's uncertain when team facilities can reopen to players, many of whom returned to their permanent residences overseas. Travel restrictions, including border closures, remain in place around the globe and the coronavirus has spread rapidly in North America over the past two weeks.

If hockey's return does not include finishing the regular season, many NHL players, Eichel included, face the possibility of not competing in a game for seven to eight months. The IIHF World Championship, which typically features NHL players on nonplayoff teams, has been canceled.

While other superstars have provided their own return-to-play scenarios – New Jersey's P.K. Subban envisioned a 31-team tournament to determine the Stanley Cup champion – Eichel was not eager to offer his thoughts on the topic.

“I think it’s tough to say what the rest of the season might look like because, to be honest with you, I can’t imagine the NHL really knows much right now about what the future holds for us just because of the fact that I really don’t think the world knows what’s going to happen," Eichel said. "I think with just that, you know, obviously we don’t want to have that much time off. ... I really just don’t know how to go about predicting what’s going to happen over the next few weeks because it’s so unknown.”

The unknown affects the Sabres differently than other teams. Buffalo's 30-31-8 record had it on track to miss the playoffs for a ninth consecutive season, despite the Sabres receiving a career-high 36 goals from Eichel. It's possible they won't be able to finish a first season under Krueger and pending free agents might be impacted financially.

Eichel is maintaining hope he'll return to the ice soon. There are more lessons to be learned for a team that played its way out of the playoff picture in the weeks leading up to the season being suspended. The Sabres wanted to show they can excel when intensity increased in March games.

But Eichel sat in his home on the second-to-last day in March, talking about the double-platinum Marvin Gaye record hanging on his wall and how much he enjoyed George Mumford's book, "The Mindful Athlete."

The effectiveness of the measures that halted the Sabres' season will determine when Eichel's life, and the life of others around the globe, will return to normal.

"I don’t think you ever want to have your season end abruptly as it did," said Eichel. "When you look at our group in a team setting, I think we’ve taken a lot of strides this year. ... I think we definitely looked at these last 13 games as an opportunity to continue to build our culture and build our team identity and to build towards the future. ... It’s never easy to have the season just kind of stop and have that unknown like it did. There’s a lot of hope that we’ll see some closure, but you really never know."

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