It’s been just over a year since Jack Eichel took the ice at the KeyBank Center as a member of the Buffalo Sabres for the last time. On Thursday, he’ll return for the first time in a Vegas Golden Knights sweater.
After the long, drawn out saga between Eichel and his former club came to an end in with a trade west in November 2021, the young centreman will step back onto the ice in Buffalo with his oft-discussed surgery behind him, 10 comeback games under his belt, and plenty of uncertainty about what awaits him among the Sabres faithful.
“Obviously you have those thoughts, you think about what sort of reception you’re going to get. But I can’t control that,” Eichel told reporters Wednesday. “I feel like I gave everything I had while I was here [during] my time in Buffalo, to the organization and to the community, so I’m at peace with all of that. Whatever the reception is, I’ll be able to handle it. You know, it’s hockey, and when the puck drops, you get a shift under your belt, I think it just becomes a game.”
Regular as it’s sure to seem once he and his mates are in the thick of those 60 minutes, there’s no denying the bizarre feeling of walking back into the building that saw him construct the foundation of his NHL career after the Sabres tabbed him with the No. 2 pick in the NHL Draft. The building that saw him go from intriguing prospect to bona fide star.
“It’s definitely strange,” he said. “But I’m not the first guy to get traded and go to another team and go back to the team they were at. Yeah, it’s a little awkward, walking in here, going to the visitors’ room. But you know, other guys have done it, so it’s just business as always.”
Eichel’s exit from the Sabres organization came on the heels of a tense, public battle between club and player, hinging on a disagreement about the best surgical route to repair the centreman’s neck injury last year. Eichel and his own doctors believed an artificial disk replacement surgery was the best route, while the Sabres doctors — wary of the replacement surgery, which had never been performed on an NHL player — preferred a more common procedure called an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion.
However, in an interview with ESPN’s Emily Kaplan that was released Wednesday, Eichel suggested the issues started even before the surgery conversation came up, beginning instead with discussions of whether Eichel could return after suffering his neck injury.
“My second-opinion doctor was of the idea that I wouldn’t play again that season. Buffalo, at first, they weren’t sure how long I would be out. So I was kind of in the middle of two different opinions,” Eichel told Kaplan. “That’s sort of where it started to get messy.”
The public falling out that ensued seemed to make Eichel’s exit inevitable, though it took time for a deal to materialize. In the meantime, both sides moved into an uncomfortable waiting period — which led to some moments that left Eichel particularly upset, like GM Kevyn Adams' decision to strip him of the captaincy ahead of this season while waiting to be traded.
“I was frustrated,” Eichel told Kaplan of the decision. “If you think about the reason why he took the captaincy away from me, it was because I didn’t agree with [the team] medically. And then [Adams] basically told me not to come around for training camp. At that point, it just felt like they were toying with me. So I was just, I was pretty over it.”
Expanding on that point while speaking to the media Wednesday, Eichel reflected on why having the ‘C’ taken away stung so much.
“I took a lot of pride in being the captain. I mean, I remember the day I was named captain. That's an incredible honour to be captain of a franchise, a professional sports team,” he said. “I remember calling my dad after and just talking to him and him saying what he thought that meant. I think I carried a lot of pride in being the captain, in wearing the 'C' here for the organization.
“Maybe I just disagreed with some things that went on through the process. I don't think anybody would be happy with getting the ‘C’ taken away from them. And I was no different."
He felt another hefty blow in the early goings of this 2021-22 season, watching teammates and friends around the league return to the ice, while his situation in Buffalo remained unresolved, his surgery yet to even be scheduled.
“The whole time I tried to stay patient and optimistic and, you know, ‘something’s going to happen. I’m going to find some positive news at some point.’ It just started to get to the point where I was just in no man’s land,” he told Kaplan. “I wasn’t really doing much. Watching the guys get back and be on the ice, it’s just like, that’s what I wanted to be doing. And I felt like I easily could’ve been there if the process had played out differently earlier in the summer or last spring.”
Even so, with the hectic chapter now behind him and a promising one in Vegas just beginning — Eichel has seven points through his first 10 games, showing glimpses of his immense potential with the Cup contender while still working his way back to 100 per cent — he said he returns to Buffalo with no ill will.
“No bitterness. Nope. None whatsoever," he said. "I had a phenomenal time here in Buffalo. Lived out a childhood dream playing my first NHL game. The organization, city was nothing but great to me and my family. So there's no bitterness in me whatsoever."
As for the fans set to fill the stands Thursday night, he just hopes they remember his time in Buffalo beyond the recent turmoil.
“You know what, you look at it and, minus the last maybe 12 months, there was a lot of really good moments,” Eichel said. “I hope the city can maybe look at it for the previous five and a half years, and everything good that happened then, and understand maybe where I’m coming from.”