Jack Eichel returns to Buffalo Thursday night for the first time since the trade that sent him to the Vegas Golden Knights.
The last time Eichel wore a Sabres jersey in Buffalo was during a Feb. 28, 2021 defeat to the Philadelphia Flyers. One week later, the 25-year-old forward suffered the neck injury that ended his season.
When Eichel entered KeyBank Center on Wednesday the walk to the visitors’ dressing room was a little weird, but ultimately he found his stall and it was back to business. But not without addressing the Buffalo media about the way his time in the city ended.
The injury Eichel suffered on Long Island led to him having artificial disk replacement surgery on his neck, a procedure he preferred but was not agreed to by the Sabres’ medical team, who recommended fusion surgery. As part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, teams have the final say on all player medical treatment, so despite months of pleading the Sabres were not changing their minds. Neither was Eichel, and it was clear a divorce was necessary.
“It is a business and the team, they stuck by their doctors’ opinions, and I respect them for that,” Eichel said. “And I hope people can respect me for standing by what I believed in and what I thought was right for myself. I hope that me being back playing and healthy, I hope that can be an example of somebody sticking by what they believe in and having a successful outcome.”
[2021-22 NHL Trade Tracker]
A trade finally was made, and on Nov. 4 Eichel was sent to Las Vegas. Despite the move finally happening, the forward was not ready to return immediately. He didn’t make his debut for the Golden Knights until Feb. 16 and has so far put up three goals and seven points in 10 games.
JACK EICHEL FOR THE WIN! 🃏 pic.twitter.com/NjhjqohmsA
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) March 7, 2022
Back in Buffalo this week, Eichel was not holding any grudges about how things ended with the team that drafted him No. 2 overall in 2015 and handed him a 10-year, $80 million contract.
“No bitterness. Nope. None whatsoever,” Eichel said Wednesday. “I had a phenomenal time here in Buffalo. Lived out a childhood dream playing in my first NHL game. The organization, the city was nothing but great for me and my family. There’s no bitterness in me whatsoever.”
No bitterness, sure. But there was plenty of frustration. In an interview with ESPN’s Emily Kaplan, Eichel explained how he felt when Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams called to tell him he was stripping him of the captaincy.
“I was frustrated,” Eichel said. “If you think about the reason why you took the captaincy away from me, it was because I didn’t agree with you medically. Then you 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.”
Eichel isn’t sure how Sabres fans will react to him stepping on the ice in Buffalo and wearing an opposing team’s jersey for the first time. (There will be a video tribute, by the way.) He wanted things to work out, and he certainly played his role with 139 goals and 355 points in 375 games. But the organization could not surround him with talent, GMs or coaches to deliver postseason hockey. Because of that the team has not made the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2011, the longest postseason drought in the NHL.
While winning may not have been a part of Eichel’s legacy in Buffalo, he hopes his impact off the ice is what fans will remember most.
“I felt I made a really good impact on the community,” Eichel said. “That was one thing that I always tried to do from the moment I was drafted. I felt like the city and the people here gave me so much, I wanted to try and give back as much as I could. But you know what, you look at it, and minus the last maybe 12 months, there was a lot of really good moments, and I thought I had a lot.
“I hope the city can maybe look at it for the previous five and a half years, whatever you call it, and everything good that happened then and understand maybe where I’m coming from.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.