Jack Eichel joins Vegas practice: 'Happy I stood up for what I believed in'

Buffalo Sabres forward Jack Eichel carries the puck during the second period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

Two months removed from artificial disk replacement surgery, Jack Eichel took to the ice with his new Vegas Golden Knights teammates Tuesday.

How does he feel?

"It felt amazing," Eichel said of joining some of his teammates in an optional skate. "Bit of an emotional moment for me. Another step in the process. This was like a kid on Christmas waking up this morning getting an opportunity to get back on the ice with the guys."

The surgery, considered controversial because no NHLer had done it before and enough reason for the Sabres to trade their star centre, has so far done the trick, Eichel said. While both Eichel and the team weren't putting a specific timeline on his return to game action, he noted that the surgery and the rehab has gone smoothly so far.

Eichel was in a non-contact jersey Tuesday and will likely remain that way for a bit in this next step in the process.

"Recovering was pretty smooth," Eichel noted. "It felt like maybe the first few weeks I was getting used to how I felt, then the next few weeks it was starting to feel better and the last few weeks, wow I feel better and basically almost back to normal.

"It's been a while since I've played a hockey game so as many reps as I can get on the ice, as much practice time I can get, that's where we're at now."

Interestingly, since Eichel became the first NHLer to get disc replacement surgery, Chicago's Tyler Johnson followed as the second. Johnson had his surgery in early December and Eichel said the two of them had a conversation about it so that Eichel could share his insight, the research he put into it, and why he ultimately decided on this operation.

Eichel also said that he has heard Johnson's surgery went similarly well.

"I did talk to him. Before he had his operation he called me when he was going through the process when he was figuring out what his best option was," Eichel said. "I had a long conversation with him, I shared my experience. At this point I was post-operation and it might have been 10 days or a week after...I just shared my experience and I think at the time he was just gathering information."

Eichel didn't say whether he would or wouldn't have been ready for the Olympics if NHL players went, but throughout his recovery there was always speculation of him possibly making Team USA and being able to compete. If that timeline remains realistic, perhaps Eichel could return in four weeks' time.

Vegas' last scheduled game before what would have been the Olympic break is Feb. 1, hosting the Buffalo Sabres.

"I haven't seen him since he left to have the surgery done," Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer said. "You want to temper your enthusiasm because this is the first step on a long return-to-play road."

The blockbuster trade, with the Sabres receiving Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch and first- and second-rounders, could be franchise-defining for both Vegas and Buffalo.

In Vegas, the Golden Knights have a variety of star players, but have been lacking big-name impact at centre, one of the most crucial positions for Stanley Cup contenders. There were no potential line combinations shared for when Eichel does play with the team, but the thought of putting him with Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty is tantalizing.

And in Buffalo, their gear shift set them backwards on the rebuild path after getting Eichel in the first place was supposed to be the dawn of a new day. Now all the spotlight is on those prospects and the pressure to blossom will be ever present.

For all the hassle, headaches and headlines over this, Eichel sat on Tuesday's Zoom call after his first practice in Vegas, looking back in wonder at what all the fuss was about. He noted that on the same day of his surgery, he went out for dinner with his parents afterward.

"I was sitting here and I was pinching myself a few times during the rehab process, just being like, ‘I went through all that for this?’

"It was a lot more straightforward than I had expected. To be completely honest, it was a really smooth process. I do have a lot of people to credit for that, but everything went very well – knock on wood. I'm in a great place now, and I'm very happy that I stood up for what I believed in. At the end of the day, it all kind of panned out the way I hoped it would."

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