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We Deserve Each Other

Three key takeaways from the Pettiness Pissing Contest between Jack Eichel and Sabres fans.

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Buffalo Sabres Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been trying to think about whether or not there are “lessons” to be learned after Thursday night’s, uh... ordeal. Yeah, let’s call it an ordeal.

In case you missed it, Jack Eichel came back to town for a homecoming that would have only been worse for him if they dumped pig’s blood on him like he was Carrie. Eichel was peppered with questions about his return before the game that you knew he didn’t want to answer, forced to remain gracious and diplomatic despite the rocky end to his time as a member of the Buffalo Sabres. Fans welcomed him to KeyBank Center with an onslaught of boos on sight. Worst of all? The Golden Knights lost 3-1. Eichel registered 2 shots and no goals or assists, and left the ice with a +/- of -1. Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch, former Knights acquired through the Eichel trade, each scored goals on their former team.

Eichel’s frustration was palpable after the game, when any prior diplomacy and decor went to the wayside. “It’s about the loudest I’ve heard this building ever,” he said, scoffing. “Really, it only took me seven years and me leaving to get into the game.” After halfheartedly acknowledging a few supporters in the crowd, he added, “They must just be booing me because they wish I was still here.”

Cool!

I’m not sure you can learn anything from this experience while everyone’s still seeing red, but there are a few key takeaways I had from watching the game, in conjunction with the petulance from both fans and Jack alike.

First off: Stop clutching pearls over the booing, even if it was stupid.

The premeditated booing of Jack Eichel seemed dumb to me. Perhaps, in part, it’s because I have never really blamed him for the shortcomings of the organization writ large. There are still, to put it delicately, folks in, um, upper administration that bungled lots of things with Eichel, thus wasting his obvious star power. With or without him, there is still a clear and obvious disconnect between what team executives think of the fans they rely on to keep their organization solvent and lifestyles intact, and the sport of hockey itself. Prior to today, hating on Eichel felt purely cathartic and symbolic, rather than meaningful.

That said, sports are merely for our entertainment. They are not necessary for survival — unless your income is directly impacted by the sports industry, a team to root for is merely a nice-to-have, rather than food or shelter. Even though hockey is not a scripted sport, it’s still for our enjoyment. Is booing during a tribute video that highlighted some of Jack’s community service uncouth? Of course. But come on. Miss me with all this handwringing and disappointment that fans booed the guy that requested a trade before the whole neck surgery debacle came out. Unless it’s explicitly bigoted or violent, you’re going to have a hard time convincing me that fan behavior is overly embarrassing, especially when a team and a player have such a contested history. This is the nature of sport, and it’s something that any sports fandom has to live with. (At least the score here favored the fans, unlike in Philadelphia, where Sixers fans packed the arena to boo Ben Simmons, only to watch their guys lose, 129-100, to the Nets.)

NHL: Vegas Golden Knights at Buffalo Sabres
A proxy fight between Sabres fans and Jack Eichel last night.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

With all that off my chest, let’s move to my next takeaway...

...Jack didn’t really help his own case.

If you believe Eichel was selfish, immature, unwilling to “embrace” Buffalo, whatever — you’re probably patting yourself on the back after he went mask-off during postgame. And yeah, honestly, as an aforementioned Eichel defender, it didn’t sit right with me that he took a potshot at one of the worst teams in the league, despite the emotion of losing his homecoming game. He’s correct that games over the tank years have felt like a trip to the morgue, but I don’t know what purpose it serves to take that cheap of a shot except to tell the fans how you really felt about them.

Catching a player immediately after a game of this intensity can bring out some anger, and I don’t blame players lashing out in the heat of the moment. Watching the presser, though, Eichel seemed entitled, as if he’s never faced hostility or adversity in his entire life. While I don’t think he’s dull enough to think he’d return a hero, he certainly held himself in high regard. You could tell he strolled into the visiting locker room confident that his team would win, and his postgame derision confirmed it.

While, yes, fans flocked to KeyBank Center out of spite, Eichel, in turn, was just as spiteful when things didn’t go his way. The air about him suggested he knew he was a big fish in the littlest pond, and it didn’t really seem to dawn on him that the Knights could lose.

Surely, his pettiness is a result of high emotions, but it leaves me wondering how invested he was in the team itself, particularly after a stint as its captain.

And finally, my third takeaway?

Everyone sucks here. We all deserve this. Embrace it.

If you’ve never heard of the subreddit r/AITA (“Am I the A**hole”), users will submit anonymized scenarios in their lives, and objective commenters will decide whether the original poster is in the wrong or right. Sometimes, though, it’s determined that everyone in the scenario is wrong in some way — “ESH,” short for “everyone sucks here.” That’s what’s happened Thursday.

Everyone has hurt feelings. Fickle, bitter fans who can’t acknowledge that a player made a business decision to leave a mismanaged hockey team would blame Jack Eichel for their loveless marriages, if they could. Jack decided to punch down and, let’s face it, would have been just as much of a d*ck had the Knights won. Buffalo’s win has now been overshadowed in equal measure by fan hate and Jack’s main character syndrome. And here we are now, in this eternal pissing contest of who can talk more crap about the other. Let’s at least have fun.

I hope when Eichel is back here next year, he embraces this heel turn. There are real dirtbags in this league who at least embrace it — the Marchands and Wilsons of the world — and Eichel now has that brand in Buffalo, with the talent to talk smack and back it up. He doesn’t have to pretend to be a magnanimous leader anymore. Lean in.

As for us? Keep making jokes. I fully support posting through it. Just don’t get offended whenever Jack inevitably claps back, be it with a snide comment or at the next game against Vegas. Be cool. To dish it is also to take it.