Jack Eichel discusses trade request, desire for disc replacement surgery

Vegas Golden Knights forward Jack Eichel sits down with Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman to discuss the relationship between him and the Buffalo Sabres, being traded to the Vegas Golden Knights and much more.

Jack Eichel was going to do interviews on Thursday, whether traded or not. He was ready. It was time.

“It’s been a long process,” he said from his Buffalo residence, hours after being traded to Vegas. “It’s been dragged out. Quite honestly, I feel a little bit embarrassed. As a hockey player, you want to be in the media, and have people taking about you for your performance and…your team winning games.”

Instead, the conversations around him were potential trades, grievances and medical debates.

Then, at 11:30 p.m. Wednesday night, Buffalo GM Kevyn Adams phoned. Relief for Eichel — and undoubtedly Adams, the Sabres and their fans. This needed to end. It wasn’t good for anyone.

“I appreciate (Kevyn) giving me the opportunity to go somewhere, get my preferred surgery and get my career back where it needs to be,” Eichel said. And he’s thrilled about going to Vegas.

As a result, Eichel avoided going into depth about the disputes between himself and the Sabres. But, he admitted that without a trade, he would have answered quite differently.

It’s a sad end to Eichel’s Buffalo tenure. It seemed like a perfect marriage when he was taken second overall in the 2015 NHL Draft. The Sabres are one of the NHL’s best fanbases. Its ownership is tight into USA Hockey. Eichel is a huge part of his generation of American-born players.

It should have been perfect.

“We didn’t win,” Eichel said. “This business is based off of results, and winning.”

“(When I first came to Buffalo) the people here opened their arms to me. It was great be a part of the community. The people here are obviously very passionate about their sports, both the Bills and the Sabres, and they care. This business is based on winning and losing and we didn’t do enough winning. That’s probably where it went wrong.”

“I really wish that we had won more for the fans, because I really feel they deserve it.”

Eichel confirmed one long-standing rumour: that he asked for a trade following the COVID-shortened 2019-20 season. He had a terrific start to the year, was in the Hart conversation for a while. But the Sabres faltered and fell below the bubble-playoff cutline. Then-GM Jason Botterill was fired.

“It just seemed that we were heading towards another…I don’t want to say rebuild but, we weren’t really in a position that we were going to try and win. I went to the team and said I wasn’t really happy with the idea of that. If that’s the route they wanted to take, maybe it would be better to move me, to use me as a jumpstart.”

“Obviously that didn’t go over well. I’m a competitor, I want to win and obviously we hadn’t won.”

“This is a business. (That’s) pretty apparent to me over the last eight months. I looked at that as a decision I was making strictly because I thought that was the best business decision for me as a hockey player.”

Eichel gave Adams “a lot of credit” for signing Taylor Hall and making moves intended to improve the team. But, 2020-21 went terribly for the team and Eichel, a “disaster in terms of a personal season for myself.”

“That conversation that happened a year ago probably had something to do with the process being so difficult.”

Eichel said that, after he was injured last March, he was presented with three options: a non-surgical “conservative treatment” to try and get better; his now-preferred Artificial Disc Replacement; and a spinal fusion.

Initially he chose the conservative treatment. One month into the process, he began researching the two surgeries.

“That’s when I started diving more into what this disc replacement was. Speaking to a lot of people, they thought this was a better option for me. I continued to do the conservative care into June and that’s when we came to what most experts say is the point — about three months — where if you’re not (making) improvement you’re not going to have any. That’s when I expressed that I wanted to have the disc replacement surgery.”

As we know, the Sabres preferred the fusion.

“I understand the complications with the CBA and the Sabres’ rights, but I also thought this is my body. And at the end of the day, I’m the one who has to live with this decision the rest of my life.”

“(It’s a) minimally invasive surgery…returns you to as close as you were prior to your injury. From people I’ve talked to — some hockey players, some other athletes — who have had fusion surgery, they all say there’s some complication with it. Whether it be range-of-motion, whether it be just their overall well-being, I’ve had friends who have had some serious complication with fusion. And the rate of another surgery is a lot higher with the fusion. I wanted to try and preserve myself as much as possible.”

Eichel said UFC fighter Chris Weidman told him that he’s had 20 surgeries, and disc replacement was the easiest. That’s why he was willing to be the first to try an NHL return after undergoing an ADR.

“I was going to stay true to what I believed in. I understand that some people probably wouldn’t feel comfortable doing what I’m doing, but I’m the only person that has to live with this decision the rest of their life. I feel I’ve done enough research, I’ve put myself at ease with it that I know I’m making the right decision. I obviously wouldn’t be doing this and wouldn’t have went through this whole process if I didn’t really, really believe that I’m doing this right.”

Eichel said he’s hoping to have the surgery next week and be back in approximately three months. He laughed at the idea of waiting until Game 1 of the playoffs like Nikita Kucherov.

“No, I’m not him. I don’t think I can do that. I think I’m going to need a couple of games beforehand.”

The best news for him is that now he can see the end goal — a return to the ice. He’s thankful Vegas believes in him and ready to wear that Golden Helmet. This needed to end for everyone involved, and, thankfully, it has.

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