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Evan Sporer | September 29, 2014

Jack Eichel, the next face of American hockey

THE NEXT FACE OF AMERICAN HOCKEY

JACK EICHEL'S RISE FROM MASSACHUSETTS KID TO BOSTON UNIVERSITY STANDOUT, TOP NHL PROSPECT, AND USA HOCKEY'S NEWEST HERO

by Evan Sporer

BOSTON -- It's late August, and one of the hottest days of the summer. In under a week, hundreds of thousands of students will descend again into the Commonwealth, crowding the streets and giving the city its own signature vibrance.

But on this day, one of those students -- a newcomer -- is already there. He's tucked away in the bowels of Agganis Arena, home to Boston University's hockey team, just itching to get on the ice and play.

Jack Eichel will spend the next eight or so months at BU. Over that time, he'll gain the right to legally vote, compete for Team USA at the World Junior Championship, and soon after, will more than likely be selected in the top two of the 2015 NHL Draft.

Eichel is being touted as one of the next great hockey talents, and for a burgeoning program like USA Hockey, that means potentially becoming the nation's next hope at international glory.

Pressure? Sure, why not?

"I love pressure; it brings out the best in me," Eichel told us in a lengthy preseason sitdown. "You can't think about comparisons, or the Draft, or the next generation of USA Hockey. You kind of just have to be yourself, and you can't let the pressure and all the expectations of what people have on you kind of effect you."

Those comparisons are of course in reference to Eichel's foil, Connor McDavid. A super-prospect in his own right, the Ontario native and Eichel are being pitted against each other as the sport's next great rivalry. Thinking Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin isn't much of an exaggeration. At the very least, we're talking Taylor Hall vs. Tyler Seguin in terms of pre-draft hype.

"I try not to think too much about it," said Eichel. "He's doing his thing in Ontario, and I'm in Boston doing my thing. I know he's working hard, and there's obviously a bunch of guys who are working really hard. If you take your foot off the gas pedal for a minute, someone is going to pass you.

"A rivalry is a rivalry, and there's going to be comparisons wherever you go."

Yet for a country like the United States that's played the role of little brother to Canada when it comes to hockey, Eichel could be an ace in the hole.

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Eichel takes on Sweden during USA Hockey's junior evaluation camp in August. (Getty Images)

From the moment he put on the sweater, it was love at first touch.

"It's unbelievable. It's hard to put into words what it's like playing for your country," said Eichel, who first represented the United States in Austria as a 15 year old. "Ever since then, I've tried to participate and play for USA Hockey as much as I can."

Those opportunities didn't wane. Shortly thereafter, Eichel was invited to join with United States National Team Development Program, or NTDP, which selects the nation's best under-17 and under-18 year olds, bringing them out to Ann Arbor to groom elite talent.

"I just knew that was what I wanted to do," said Eichel. "They just have a good track record of producing NHL players, and getting to represent your country every day was amazing."

One of the core principles of the program is instilling that sense of pride in getting a chance to represent one's country, according to Danton Cole, who coached Eichel on the under-17 team two years ago.

"It definitely is something that's learned, and that's something that was one of the original principles of the program: to establish that pride in wearing that sweater," Cole said. "It's a main part of what we do here. To make sure that the guys realize that a lot of people do a lot of different things that create this opportunity for them, and they need to be aware of that, and to represent the United States in the right way all the time."

Most of that pride is born out of experience, according to both Eichel and Cole.

"I remember one specific moment was we were in Russia this year right before the Olympics, and we were playing Russia," Eichel said. "Our anthem was going before the game, and their anthem was going, and I was just thinking to myself how lucky I am to be able to play for USA."

Cole said Eichel was already incredibly gifted when he entered the NTDP, but that didn't hold him back from improving during his time in Ann Arbor.

"They come in so young and raw in a lot of ways, but he did a tremendous job, and improved his game in terms of learning to play offensively and defensively without the puck," Cole said. "Just the maturity of his game, and understanding different ways he can influence and dominate a game outside of dominating with the puck.

"There are so many more things that are part of a game, and ways he can dominate it."

Eichel created many a memory when participating in the two-year development program. This past season he led his team to a gold medal at the 2014 IIHF World U18 Championships, where he was the third-leading scorer in the tournament and the top producer on Team USA. In the year prior, the lasting memory of Eichel is leading a come-from-behind victory over Ontario in the 2013 World U17 Challenge, and rival McDavid.

"It wasn't a one-on-time type battle or situation; it was more Jack kind of taking over a game," Cole said of the Ontario tilt. "It was just him deciding, ‘hey, we're going to win that game.'"

Ontario was ahead 4-1 midway through the second period on the strength of a goal and two assists from McDavid. Then it was Eichel's turn. He scored shorthanded to cut the United States' deficit to 4-2. An early power play goal in the third brought Team USA within one, and then Eichel completed the comeback with his second of the contest, knotting the game at four apiece. The teams each traded a goal down the stretch, and Team USA eventually won in a shootout 6-5.

"Anybody that was at that game, all the scouts that were there, said [Eichel and McDavid] both had really good games," Cole said. "Everybody realized we were looking at two pretty good hockey players for the draft two years down the road."

One of the other goals of NTDP is to produce players for the United States' senior team -- the one that's only won gold twice ever at the Olympics. As Cole and the rest of the coaching staff in Ann Arbor saw Eichel off, the question was simply to what heights he could help take USA Hockey.

"That's one of the things we establish here, and that's one of the things we hope happen; that there is some carryover, and that the things the guys learned here they take with them, and not just for themselves but other players," Cole said. "That's what you hope happens, and certainly with guys like Jack, and other ones if we continue to have guys come through with an understanding of what it takes to be successful, hopefully we'll start to see those results more and more."

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agganisAgganis Arena, home of the Boston University men's ice hockey team, and Jack Eichel. (Getty Images)

The Boston University men's hockey lounge is a visual reminder of the program's success. Five national championships, 29 Beanpot titles, 12 Hockey East tournament championships. The list of accomplishments go on.

As Eichel sits among the banners and accolades, he's well aware of the history and the pedigree he has to live up to, having grown up in nearby Chelmsford, Mass.

Although his allegiances have since changed.

"When I was younger, I was always kind of a BC fan," Eichel said of hated rival Boston College, which plays just down Commonwealth Avenue from BU. "When I got older, I started to like BU better, and the people who were at BU. Just everything about BU. I felt that I fit in better here, and it's my type of place."

At age three, Eichel learned how to skate. A year later, he had a stick in his hand and his hockey career was underway. With the enjoyment he quickly found in the game, and his dad a huge fan, it was an easy marriage.

But it wasn't all hockey for Eichel, who said his parents made him take time off by playing other sports, like baseball and lacrosse.

"That was really big, because it didn't burn me out that I wasn't playing hockey all summer," Eichel said. "It just made me enjoy hockey more, and it made me more excited for the season when it finally came back."

After eighth grade, though, Eichel said he realized he could really go somewhere on ice. He had just played a year for the Junior Bruins, and was invited to a select 15-year-old camp.

"I was one of the better players there," he said. "I had a good week, and I started getting it from different colleges, so it kind of clicked that I could do something with hockey."

He'll get his opportunity to continue to play close to home at BU, where he'll be coached by a former Terrier and former NHLer David Quinn. The coach is entering his second year behind the bench for his alma mater and is eager to unleash Eichel on Hockey East.

"The thing that jumps out to you at first is how easy he makes the game look," Quinn said. "He's effortless; he's physically imposing out there. On top of how physically gifted he is, he's got great vision, he's got a great hockey IQ and he makes everybody around him look better."

Then Quinn began to laugh.

"There's really nothing to not like."

From the periphery, Eichel's road to Boston University wasn't so smooth. He was recruited by legendary head coach Jack Parker, who announced amid the 2011-12 season he would retire at year's end, after Eichel had already committed to play his hockey there. Rumors flared up of Eichel potentially jolting the college ranks to go play a year of major junior, with a chance to go up head-to-head against McDavid.

Both Eichel and Quinn called that outside noise.

"Everyone wants to make up rumors, and people are going to say that I'm doing this, or doing that," said Eichel. "The people who really know what's going to happen are my family; the people who are close to me.

"I knew all along I wanted to come and play collegiate hockey at Boston University."

"I knew all along I wanted to come and play collegiate hockey at Boston University."

Either way, Quinn doesn't know how long he'll have with Eichel. Many expect him to be in the NHL for the 2015-16 season, although one-and-dones aren't as native a concept to college hockey as in other sports. A former NTDP coach himself, Quinn is experienced in working with young, talented players.

Still, Eichel is different.

"I had Phil Kessel in Ann Arbor, Jack Johnson in Ann Arbor, but you're playing in Ann Arbor, so nothing like this," Quinn said. "The whole situation with Jack and McDavid has kind of taken on a life of its own.

"It's kind of like Oden and Durant in the NBA."

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eichel mcdavid Jack Eichel vs. Connor McDavid, one-on-one, at the 2014 World Junior Championship. (Getty Images)

Eichel isn't thinking too much about the long-term. He prefers to set short-term goals, he said, like being a difference-maker at BU, and winning the 2015 World Junior Championship in Canada, where Eichel again will be matched up with McDavid.

It's tough for anyone to keep everything in focus that sharply, though.

"It starts with just a Stanley Cup," Eichel said. "If I get a chance to play in the NHL, I'd love to win a Stanley Cup. It's a goal. You think about it when you first start playing hockey."

Eichel is also hoping to be the first pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. Many scouts felt if he was eligible to be selected in 2014, he would have gone first overall. But that draft also didn't contain McDavid.

"I wouldn't say I'd be upset if I'm not the No. 1 overall pick, but I definitely want to be the No. 1 pick," Eichel said. "It's in anyone's competitive nature to be the No. 1 pick.

"We're hockey players, and nobody really dreams of going second. Everybody dreams of going No. 1 overall."

Eichel also said he hopes the Olympics are around come 2018, and that NHL players are still being sent to the Games. That's an unresolved question for the league and players union right now, while there are voices on both sides of the table when it comes to the NHL's participation.

"I definitely want the Olympics to stick around," Eichel said. "I know they were talking about potentially not using NHL players anymore. I don't know where I'll be in 2018, but I really hope they give the chance for NHL players, or whoever best fits the team. I hope they continue doing what they're doing."

"We're hockey players, and nobody really dreams of going second. Everybody dreams of going No. 1 overall."

Eichel called Patrick Kane the current face of USA Hockey, while he mentioned Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews as players he looks up to. When it came to comparing himself to a pro, Eichel selected a player who did the bulk of his heavy lifting before Eichel was a teenager.

"It's tough to put one guy, but I kind of think I play like Mike Modano," he said. "He was obviously a good American forward, a great skater, so he's kind of someone I play pretty similar to."

In Quinn, Eichel will not only get a new coach, but a former pro who can put him through the reps and help position him to reach for the levels of those Eichel looks up to.

"To me, you never coach anyone the same, but you have the same expectations of every player," Quinn said. "My job is to make every player the best player they can be.

"I remember Phil Kessel having a hat trick one night, and I was upset with his performance, and he couldn't understand it.

"I said, ‘Phil, you had a hat trick tonight because god blessed you with more ability than everyone else in this locker room. If you played to the best of your ability, you would have had six.'"

Eichel will get a chance to test his ability playing in Hockey East, the top college conference in the nation. That wasn't lost when Eichel was mapping out his development path.

"That's one of the reasons I came to college," he said. "You're going to be playing against older guys every night, and it's going to be tough."

He's already gotten some insight into what he should expect from two old teammates and two rising juniors for BU, Matt Grzelcyk and Danny O'Regan. Both players were on last year's World Junior team with Eichel, and were also able to give Quinn insight into what he was in store for.

"The thing that I love is, as much as they love him as a player, they love him that much as a guy, too," Quinn said. "That's incredibly important."

***

Eichel couldn't recall where he was during the 2010 Olympics -- "probably home," he guessed -- but remembered watching the 2014 team fail to medal with his NTDP teammates in Ann Arbor.

"Whenever you watch USA, especially being part of it, you just become more of a fan of their Olympic teams or their World Championship teams, and you just root for them a lot harder," Eichel said. "When they don't do that well, it does bother you."

He's never met McDavid, although the two have played against each other for quite some time. Cole said there will only be a true rivalry if the two start playing each other a lot more regularly. But Cole seemed confident that whatever situation Eichel finds himself in, he'll thrive, no matter how much pressure there is.

"Jack is a confident guy, and he likes being in those situations," Cole said. "He wouldn't have had the success in tough situations if he didn't."


Editor: Travis Hughes| Special thanks: Boston University Athletics, USA Hockey
All photos via Getty Images

About the Author

Evan is an NHL contributor for SBNation.com, as well as Blueshirt Banter and SB Nation College Hockey. He’s originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., where he grew up rooting for the Rangers, and is an admitted Wade Redden apologist.

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