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Closure on the Eichel Era in Buffalo

How the player responds matters.

About two weeks after the trade that saw Jack Eichel get moved to Vegas for Alex Tuch, Peyton Krebs, and a couple other non-player pieces I wrote an article here on Die By The Blade. I wrote that we as supporters of the Buffalo Sabres needed to have some perspective on Eichel’s time here. We needed to be wise and understanding. We needed to appreciate what he did here and what the front office put him through. We needed to applaud him and show the whole league we understand he was hard done by the team concerning his surgery. I said we needed to not boo him and cheer him on from here in Buffalo in all his future endeavors.

I was wrong.

Not only was I wrong: Jack Eichel specifically spurned fans like me.

There are few moments in sports where a dramatic turning point is evident to all viewers. In the run of play you learn to detect them but in the broad state of a franchise and fanbase these moments are often muted, happening slowly over the course of years in a declining player or a rising dynasty. I wrote the aforementioned article expecting the same to happen with Jack Eichel’s relationship with the Buffalo Sabres. He was traded, it was over, let’s be the smart fans and move on. I am a good contributor to this website, so I promoted the article especially as the Eichel return to Buffalo as a Golden Knight approached. I thought the excessive booing and the grown men with anti-Eichel signs was embarrassing. And then the game went the way it did, and Jack Eichel’s postgame comments changed the narrative towards closure in a way we don’t often get in sports. My prior article was completely and thoroughly superfluous overnight.

I don’t know where to begin with the former captain’s comments: the tone, the disposition, the words. I’m not the guy to throw around the word “entitled” much. I think it’s overused and non-descriptive in most cases. Jack Eichel’s comments Thursday night seeped entitlement like an open wound being salted.

One specific comment that rises above the rest is: “That’s the loudest I’ve heard this place ever. It only took seven years and me leaving for them to get into it.” Yeah, it’s a bad season attendance-wise here but that is not the norm and Jack knows that. Not only does he know that, but he made KeyBank Center octaves louder on multiple occasions in his time here. There were structural concerns after a win in the ten-game winning streak in the 2018-2019 season by way of all the noise.

Are you really that childish and unprofessional that a storm of booing is enough to make you get this standoffish? You seriously told ESPN you’re not bitter and went on to say that after the game? You really thought you’d come in here and lay waste to the old barn, didn’t you?

Vegas Golden Knights v Buffalo Sabres
Tuch races towards goal after stripping Eichel of the puck.
Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

One more comment leaps out at Sabres fans in retrospect: “They must just be booing me because they wish I was still here.” In spite of how jaded this sounds at first blush there is something to what he’s saying. The vast majority of fans were very ready for Eichel to be gone after five months of waiting on the trade. They don’t wish he was still here in the slightest, especially after how well the two players we received in the trade are doing (the one who stripped the puck off Jack for the 3-1 goal is probably going to be the next captain). But then there is a group of absolute maniacs like me. I got Eichel’s gold Vegas jersey and I’ve been watching Golden Knights games even before Jack got back on the ice. We wanted to support Eichel and see him succeed after what he endured from three crappy front office regimes here. This comment destroyed folks like me who had some goodwill left in our hearts for Jack. Whatever is left of that goodwill is not going to be making a public appearance anytime soon after that presser.

To the out-of-market fans of other teams, the broadcasters, and the writers who feel like we here in Buffalo are being too hard on him after what the Pegulas put him through: you’re right. No player should have to suffer an injury like that waiting on a team doctor and no captain should have their captaincy stripped so unceremoniously like that in such a petty way. When I tell you that is not even half of the story, you have to listen to those of us who have watched this team through a decade-long drought with only a handful of happy moments before you bemoan game attendance and all the booing. It’s willfully ignorant of the whole story, not to mention the obvious fact that we haven’t been given a team remotely a playoff competitor since the first Obama administration.

Season ticket holders have been roasted by rising prices and demand dropping precipitously. Nonetheless we bought jerseys and gave them some of the best TV ratings in the sport. Spare us the cynical, half-hearted debate about whether Buffalo is a hockey city or not. The buried lead is Jack Eichel demands more consternation then I was willing to give him before this reunion.

Jack Eichel privately asked for a trade in summer 2020 after a massive culling of the organization’s personnel that saw yet another new GM take power. That wild Taylor Hall trade to Buffalo was a swing for the fences as a direct result of the trade request. It failed spectacularly. By the time Eichel suffered the season-ending neck injury all the cards had already been played. By no means did the Pegulas and the new front office regime need to draw the lines they did and make us all look like clowns. Given.

Once again: I was one who always defended Jack from the haters near and far. Even after the revelation of that trade request I still supported him. But context is key, and it made a fool out of me.

He asked for the trade in 2020 while he was two years into an eight-year deal. We all realize it was an ugly situation already and he was probably staring down a third rebuild in five years. I will pull for the player in 90% of player versus ownership battles, but how a player responds to situations matters. Nobody had any confidence in ownership to get it right this time, but Eichel made a commitment he didn’t honor. And Eichel honored this community visiting hospitals and all the like, so he knew the duties of the C and the commitment that comes with a contract that big. Don’t sign the contract with that kind of term if you’re not prepared to stick around that long: good relationships don’t have exit strategies.

I wrote in that prior article that all could be forgiven with some dedication to our fanbase: our set of laundry, our crest. More than ownership even, a fanbase is indeed forever. In the end Jack Eichel wasn’t ready to provide the dedication. More embarrassingly I compared Eichel’s time in Buffalo to that of Pierre Turgeon three decades ago. Pierre Turgeon should be mad at me for that comparison. At no point did Pierre Turgeon defame the fans after losing in a reunion game after he was shipped out of town. And we got Pat LaFontaine for him! There are few more classic blunders of petty former player commentary then going after the fans.

I was wrong in thinking we needed to have perspective when it comes to Jack Eichel’s time here in Buffalo. Clearly the man himself was lying when he said he held no bitterness toward the fans if all it took was booing to get him to unleash that commentary. I wanted to support him so bad, and I probably will find a quiet, private way to do so if he makes his first playoff appearance this spring. But there will be no fond, historical contextualization of his time here after those comments. And there will be no need for any Sabres fan to feel conflicted about him going forward after the kind of 1 for 1 closure that game provided us. Sure, as good as Peyton Krebs, Alex Tuch and the players drafted with the picks might be they probably won’t amount to a Jack Eichel. That’s alright with every fan of the blue and gold now because we just got the best possible closure on the Eichel Era in Buffalo.

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