The new face of American hockey doesn’t think it’s his. “Guys like Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel,” said Jack Eichel. “When I think of the face of American hockey, that’s what I think of. I really haven’t accomplished much and I have a long way to go before I can say I’ve done anything.”
The consensus is that Eichel, who grew up in North Chelmsford and is a Boston University freshman, will go a long way. He doesn’t turn 18 until Tuesday and he only has played in three college games, two of them exhibitions.
But Eichel already is predicted to be one of the top two picks, along with Canadian center Connor McDavid, in the National Hockey League draft in June. “The thing with Jack is, he’s a pretty complete package,” said NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr, who considers Eichel a “skilled power forward.’’
Not since Bobby Carpenter, the Peabody native who went straight from St. John’s Prep to the Washington Capitals as the third overall choice in 1981, has there been as much buzz about a Massachusetts teenage player. “There’s more hype about this guy because there’s more hype, period,” said former BU coach Jack Parker, who recruited Eichel. “There’s a whole bunch of people in Canada talking about Jack Eichel.”
Eichel plays a sport that has changed utterly since Carpenter took his giant step from high school to the pros, the first US player to do it and the first American-born product ever chosen in the first round. The idea of playing for your local varsity for four years now is considered a quaint 20th century concept. “It really is a microcosm of the hockey world now,” observed BU coach David Quinn.
Eichel played for the Junior Bruins, then went to Michigan to participate in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program. This is the first time he has suited up for his school team. “He absolutely loves being a Terrier,” said his mother, Anne.
The question, even before he enrolled, was how long Eichel would remain a Terrier. Almost nobody figures that he’ll stay at BU for four years, and the common assumption is that he’ll be one and done. “I’ve had people tell me he’s ready now,” said his father, Bob. “I don’t think he’s ready now, but what do I know?”
His son barely had settled in on Commonwealth Avenue before people began asking him when he’d be leaving. “I don’t put any timetable on how long I’m going to be in college,” Eichel said. “If I need to be here all four years, then that’s what it’s going to be. My goal is to play in the NHL but I know when the time is ready I’ll be able to make the jump. I don’t want to make the jump early and then regret it. If I have to stay here for however many years, I’ll be ready to do that.”
So far Eichel’s ear for his own traveling music has been on the mark. He went to Ann Arbor because he’d concluded that playing in the challenging US program was the best preparation for college.
“Those decisions are made from your heart,” said Eichel. “A lot of it has to do with if you feel ready to make that switch. Moving out to Ann Arbor was the best situation for me. Then I felt that BU was the best situation for me. Everything I do, I feel I do with my heart.”
Living the dream
His hockey career always has been in fast-forward, ever since his grandmother gave him a plastic stick when he was 3. “He’d be running around the house constantly with a plastic puck,” his mother remembered. Eichel was playing on a traveling team when he was 5. At 13 he was with the Junior Bruins, skating against players a half-dozen years older.
“It was definitely hard for me my first year,” said Eichel, who stood 5 feet 9 inches and weighed 145 pounds when the season started. “I didn’t score a goal for two months. Everyone was so much bigger and stronger than me. I got pushed around pretty easily.”
After a timely growth spurt he was 6 feet, 175 pounds. When he put up 86 points in 36 games the following season and played for the US squad at the Youth Olympic Games in Austria the recruiters came calling. What Eichel had — size, speed, shot, smarts — was rare in its combination.
“I noticed an unbelievable skating ability that’s almost deceptive,” observed Parker. “It looks so smooth. He’s so effortless that it doesn’t look like he’s skating that hard or that fast, but he is. Jack Eichel is going a lot faster than he appears to be going.”
Eichel’s dream was to play for a Hockey East team and skate in the Beanpot. Since he’d grown up a Boston College fan his parents assumed that he’d head for the Heights. “I thought in my heart that’s where he was going to pick,” his mother said. Eichel ultimately went with what his heart — and his gut — told him. “I was waiting for that feeling in my stomach that this is the place I want to be,” he said. “I ended up getting that feeling about BU.”
That also was his feeling about Ann Arbor even though it meant moving halfway across the country and living with strangers. “It was something he wanted so bad,” said his father. “The way my wife and I looked at it, we didn’t want him coming back to us at 26 and saying, I wish I’d done it.”
The transition, Eichel acknowledged, was difficult. “I wasn’t waking up to my mom cooking me breakfast every day, but my billet family was unbelievable,” he said. “They brought me right into their house as if I was one of their own.”
The on-ice transition was bumpy, as well, with Eichel absorbing a body shot whenever he touched the puck. But he ended up making the Under-18 world team as the youngest player and was the top gun for this year’s team that won the gold medal. “His awareness and his quick read-and-react put him in a special category,” said Marr, who feels that Eichel “is ready to be the difference-maker.”
He’s special enough that Eichel has been deemed a generational NHL player along the likes of a Mike Modano or a Mario Lemieux. That was a startling upgrade for someone who once wasn’t thinking past the Frozen Four. “He once asked me, if I get a D-1 scholarship will you buy me a car?” recalled his father, who’s a manager for F.W. Webb in Lowell. “I said, I’ll buy you whatever you want. He’s trying to hold me to it.”
Eichel arrived at BU a year ahead of schedule thanks to his summer online studies and tutoring arranged by his mother that enabled him to obtain a high school diploma in three years. “I know I was a pain in the neck to him because he had so much on his plate,” she said. “But he got it done.”
All the tools
After watching him digitally on FASTHockey, his parents finally get to see him up close. “It’s so nice to be back in the rink again,” said Anne, who’s a nurse at Boston Medical Center. For Terriers fans who endured a rare losing campaign last season, Eichel’s arrival has created near-messianic fervor. “He gives us a swagger,” said Quinn, whose 11th-ranked squad has home dates with Michigan State and Michigan on Friday and Saturday.
Lighting up the scoreboard will do that. In a 12-1 tuneup with St. Thomas, Eichel assisted on five goals. With his mates up, 2-1, after two periods at UMass, he scored two goals and set up two more in a span of 10 minutes 45 seconds en route to an 8-1 blowout. In last weekend’s 6-4 exhibition decision over the US Under-18 team, Eichel had two goals and an assist against his former colleagues.
On Dec. 19, he’ll change jerseys and join the US junior team that will face the Terriers before heading for the world championships, where it will meet Canada on New Year’s Eve before a capacity crowd at the Bell Centre in Montreal. It’ll be the latest showdown between Eichel and McDavid, who captains the Erie Otters in the OHL, and the last one before the draft.
“I don’t really know him too well,” Eichel said. “He’s obviously a very good player. He gets a lot of attention and he deserves it. But he’s playing in the OHL in Pennsylvania and I’m playing college hockey in Boston. I’m just trying to focus on myself and control what I can, and that’s just making sure that I work hard every day.”
The draft, he figures, will take care of itself. If any of the seven Canadian clubs picks first, it’ll have to tap McDavid or risk being charged with treason by his countrymen. “The draft is just a number at this time,” observed Eichel. “It’s what you do after the draft. My goal is to make the NHL. It doesn’t matter where I get drafted.”
For Eichel, it’s all about the when. Knowing when to make the leap is an uncertain science. “A lot of times when you rush a player there can be some consequences,” mused Marr. “Not so much the first year but the second and third.”
Parker, who coached pro prospects for four decades, generally told them that they shouldn’t leave college unless they were going directly to the NHL. “There’s no sense in leaving here if you’re going to the American Hockey League,” he’d say.
Quinn, a 1984 first-round choice whose career was cut short by a blood disorder, said that Eichel will know when to turn in his scarlet jersey. “When it’s time for Jack to leave, it’s time for Jack to leave,” he said. “I’m never going to tell a kid he’s got to stay here if he doesn’t have to stay here.”
Whenever he wants a glimpse of what’s ahead all Eichel has to do is hop a trolley car to the Garden. “We went to the Bruins’ first game with the Flyers and Jack said to me, I look at the game a lot different now,” his father said. “I can imagine myself getting hit by [Zdeno] Chara.”