Searching for What Drives Jack Eichel, Hockey's New All-American Hero

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Searching for What Drives Jack Eichel, Hockey's New All-American Hero
Associated Press
Jack Eichel in his rookie season with the Buffalo Sabres.

NORTH CHELMSFORD, Mass.  The search for the real Jack Eichel has to begin in this community of 9,300 about 30 miles northwest of Boston. But the breadcrumbs are few.

What is it, exactly, that made Eichel into a person who, as his friend Dan Ferri says, was “obsessed” with being an NHL player? There are no pushy stage parents to be found here. Bob and Anne Eichel, by all accounts, never pressured their son into playing hockey.

If they were only interested in their son’s financial success, they haven’t done a good job of showing it since Eichel was selected second overall by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2015 NHL draft. Both continue to work, Bob as a foreman for a plumbing company and Anne as a registered nurse.

Money may not have been plentiful, but there was plenty enough for a comfortable middle-class upbringing.

There are no tales of a kid being bullied in school, wanting thereafter to prove everyone wrong. Ferri said Eichel “got along with just about everybody.” There was no peer from youth hockey he constantly compared himself to. According to Ferri, Eichel “was a lot better than everyone right from the start.”

No dramatic backstory can be found to explain why a kid felt the need to work out as often as four times a day, felt guilty on holidays for not being able to get into the gym and regularly drove hours out of his way to find a rink or weight room that might still be open.

Those extra hours of dedication had their payoff at last year’s NHL Scouting Combine, where Eichel ranked among the top 10 in seven fitness-testing categories, the most of any player.

Ask Eichel himself where all that drive came from, and he isn’t sure, either. But he’s pretty sure all roads lead back to Bob and Anne somehow.

“I definitely got my work ethic from them. They’ve always worked hard and taken pride in that, and that really rubbed off on me,” Eichel said.

It’s another sunny January day outside in Glendale, Arizona, and answers to the essence of Eichel are elusive here, too.

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Eichel posing after being taken second overall in the 2015 draft.

He has just wrapped things up from the morning skate in preparation for a game later that night against the Arizona Coyotes. He is only half a season into his first in the NHL, still only 19 and battling the teenager’s burden of a little facial acne. He has curly reddish hair that sits high atop his forehead.

The face of American hockey going forward looks a bit like a cross between Alfred E. Neuman and Richie Cunningham.

When a small group of reporters approaches his locker inside the Gila River Arena, though, Eichel looks and sounds like a person used to attention.

Frequently in the middle of their questions, he says, “Yup,” with slight impatience, as if he already knows what the question will be. His answers sometimes seem rehearsed, his gaze often pointed not at the questioner but another part of the room.

It is somewhat at the heart of the dichotomy surrounding Eichel.

He was born and raised in one of the most blue-collar parts of old-school New England, yet he gives off the vibe of someone accustomed to success, someone impatient for the next level of stardom he seems destined to achieve.

Eichel scored his 14th goal in Buffalo’s 2-1 win over the Coyotes, and he added two more in a win over Ottawa before the All-Star break. After his first 50 games, Eichel has 16 goals and 34 points to go with a minus-11 rating.

The Sabres have been much more competitive this season than last but are still near the bottom of the league standings. That, more than anything, has taken some of the fun out of his rookie season.

“It’s been an adjustment,” said Eichel, when asked if it’s been difficult not scoring every night like every level previously. “But I think I’m adapting to it better, now that we’re halfway through the year. But I expect to get a lot better.”

One thing is for sure: Eichel will work as hard as it takes to get there. It’s always been that way. While other kids played video games or hung out at the mall, the younger Eichel searched area rinks for better competition or punished himself at the gym, doing countless chin-ups and squats and bench-presses.

“I remember the first year I played with him, he was just way better than everyone else,” said Ferri, a friend of Eichel’s from elementary school who plays for the Boston Junior Bruins of the U.S. Premier Hockey League. “He would score six goals a game. He had a lot of natural ability, but he’s worked harder than anyone I’ve ever known. We worked out a lot in the summers at a place called 'Mike Boyle’s (Strength and Conditioning)' in Andover, and he was just always all business. There’s no joking around. He always wanted to get there first thing in the morning and would give me a hard time when I wanted to sleep in a little more.”

After one year at Chelmsford High, at 15 he left home for Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the U.S. National Development Team. Instead of rinks in old Eastern industrial towns, Eichel was traveling around the world playing for the U.S., starring as the team’s leading scorer in 2013-14 as a 17-year-old (45 points in 24 games).

“He wasn’t just an outstanding individual player, but he made people around him better, too. That’s when I knew we had a special player,” said Danton Cole, Eichel’s coach with the U.S. team. “We had Dylan Larkin (now with Detroit) on his final team and he really was responsible, I think, for pushing Dylan to be a better player. Some of the practices they had against each other were pretty legendary.”

Said Larkin: “We had some good battles. It got pretty intense. We did a lot of small-area games and drills, and we were often against each other. But it all helped make me a better player. It’s cool to see how much he took off after that. He’s lived up to all the hype.”

After Ann Arbor, Eichel went back home, sort of.

Back in North Chelmsford, the search for the essence of Eichel continues at Rosie’s Diner. Service is about to end soon at the 6 a.m.-2-p.m., breakfast-and-lunch-only spot at 27 Vinal Square, the part of this unincorporated town named after World War I private Alberton W. Vinal, who died in battle in France. The November clouds are hemmed in close, in their usual iron and oyster wintry-colored mixture.

Credit: Rose Gauthier
Jack Eichel's signature on a Rosie's Diner menu.

There’s not much hockey talk to be had at the moment. The unseasonably mild weather, the Patriots—this is most of the conversation around the front counter. But when another visitor asks about the signed menu sitting above an array of dishes and coffee mugs, the proprietor of Rosie’s Diner, Rose Gauthier, perks up and proclaims to everyone within earshot: “Oh, that’s signed by our most famous native son.”

Move over, Alberton Vinal. At 19, Eichel already has surpassed everyone else hailing from North Chelmsford in Google search hits. He not only is seen as the franchise cornerstone of the Buffalo Sabres, but one of USA Hockey's as well. But don’t expect any other brash signage proclaiming as much anytime soon back home.

“Jack and a couple of his buddies came in here to eat sometimes. But you know what? He never made a show about anything, about who he was. Most people here didn’t know who he was,” Gauthier said. “And, really, I can’t even say I know him all that well. But he was a very respectful kid.”

That is totally in keeping with the New England way. Everybody keeps to themselves, and that’s even if people see each other in passing every day. Maybe a nod, maybe even a quick “howyadoin?”, but not much more than that passes for small talk in small-town New England.

The one thing Rosie Gauthier would brag about, just a little: the fact that Eichel hails from North Chelmsford, not the regular Chelmsford, Massachusetts.

Chelmsford, as the North-siders tell it, is where the fancified people live. North Chelmsford, with a population that is about a quarter the size of Chelmsford’s, is where they still keep it real. Maybe this is getting closer to the real Eichel.

“There used to be some pretty good feuds across the border between the townspeople,” Gauthier said. “We can definitely say we have the best hockey player among the two, though!”

He could have played anywhere, for any junior or college team. He chose Boston University, partly because it was only a half-hour drive or so from home and partly because of its superb recent pedigree of developing players for the NHL. One of legendary coach Jack Parker’s final good deeds for the school was personally recruiting Eichel before retiring.

In his one year for the Terriers, Eichel put up 71 points in 40 games, with an incredible plus-51. If not for a fluke bounce for Providence College that swung momentum in the NCAA final, BU would have won a national title. He became just the second freshman in NCAA history, along with Paul Kariya, to win the Hobey Baker Award, given to college hockey’s most outstanding player.

Richard T Gagnon/Getty Images
Eichel celebrates while playing for Boston University.

Terriers coach David Quinn still shakes his head when thinking of Eichel’s one year, wishing there could have been more but fully understanding why there wasn’t.

“He’s a world-class talent,” Quinn said. “His skating ability is off the charts, and he’s so much stronger than people realize. I remember one time in testing, he cleaned (and jerked) 340 pounds. That’s off the charts. I tell people he’s like the Secretariat of hockey. If you’d never seen him play before, you just notice him after five seconds. We wish we could have kept him longer, but in this day and age, it’s tougher.”

Daniel O’Regan, a fifth-round selection of the San Jose Sharks in 2012, notched 50 points in 41 games as a junior playing mostly on Eichel’s line at BU during the 2014-15 campaign. The season before, O’Regan had 22 points in 35 games.

“He just opened up so much space for guys like me, because other teams focused so much on him,” O’Regan said. “He just came in here and dominated as a freshman. That doesn’t happen too often.”

Eichel greatly enjoyed the college experience and was tempted to spend another year at BU, but after his stock soared to greater heights among NHL scouts, he felt he was ready to make the jump at 18. The Sabres missed out on fellow standout Connor McDavid after losing the draft lottery to Edmonton, but Eichel certainly wasn’t a shabby runner-up prize.

He had goals in two of his first three games. His production did dip around mid-November through early December, but Eichel has been one of Buffalo’s more consistent scorers since, with seven points in the last five games before the All-Star break.

He has to be considered among the mix for the Calder Trophy, though Eichel admits he has a lot more work to put in.

“I have a lot of things I want to improve on, a long way to go,” Eichel said. “I need to bear down more on my opportunities when I have them. I’ve let a few goals get away where I should have buried them, and that’s not fun for me.”

Sabres coach Dan Bylsma wants Eichel to keep working on his play away from the puck, and to “skate and use his speed more to his advantage,” but otherwise has had almost all good things to say about him.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press
Eichel battles for the puck against the Arizona Coyotes.

“You know with him, he’s not going to get outworked, and with his talent level, that’s going to win out for him in the end,” Bylsma said. “He just needs to keep learning.”

Bob Eichel, along with parents of other Sabres players, traveled with the team through Arizona and Colorado. Getting to spend a couple of quality dinners alone with his father, getting to show him the perks of life in the NHL, will form a lasting memory, Eichel said.

“I think he enjoyed it, and I sure as hell know I did. He loves the game, and my mom does, too, but they never put any pressure on me at all to play," he said. "They just wanted me to be happy in whatever I was doing, but for me that was always playing hockey."

After the loss to the Avalanche, though, Eichel punished himself with a postgame workout that included multiple chin-ups, the kind he always did on the bar installed by his father next to the kitchen. His father, who declined to be interviewed, watched from a few feet away, quietly chatting with another Sabre dad.

The family home, which includes the basement where young Jack fired thousands of pucks against the cement wall that still has the indents to prove it, is still where Bob and Anne live, and there are no plans to move out to the more highfallutin’ areas like the “other” Chelmsford.

“They don’t want me to buy them a house or anything,” Eichel said. “Buy them a dinner or fly them out to Buffalo once in a while—that’s about it. They’re real simple people, and that’s what makes them special.”

Back in North Chelmsford, after serving a visitor what proved a terrific plate of eggs Benedict, Rose Gauthier thought for a moment and said: “I don’t think Jack will ever forget where he came from. He doesn’t seem like the type.”

Whatever it is that drives Jack Eichel, it’s not readily apparent. His parents, North Chelmsford, the blue-collar New England, up-by-the-bootstraps thing? All of that, no doubt, and more.

What that “more” is remains a bit of a mystery, maybe even to Eichel himself. But whatever it is, it’s working and it’s not going away.

Adrian Dater covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Adater.

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