Great Expectations

Before He Becomes A Top NHL Draft Pick, Jack Eichel Is Looking To Lift BU Back To Prominence And Lead The U.S. To World Junior Gold
By: 
Jess Myers

Two years ago, when David Quinn was offered the head coaching position at his alma mater, he didn’t need a lot of extra incentive to take the job. A native New Englander with NHL coaching experience, Quinn had longed for the opportunity to follow legendary coach Jack Parker at the helm of Boston University’s renowned hockey program.

Still, there was a little bit of an additional signing bonus waiting for Quinn to grab the corner office inside Agganis Arena — a commodity that no other Junior, college or pro coaching job in the world could boast.

Two years earlier, when he was just 15, with stints for the Boston Junior Bruins and the National Team Development Program on his growing hockey resume, a promising forward named Jack Eichel made a commitment to Parker that one day he would wear the red and white sweater of the Terriers. And despite lots of needless noise that Parker’s retirement might mean a change of heart for Eichel, there he was in October 2014, wearing that celebrated uniform with “BOSTON” on the front, just above a white number nine.

If folks were expecting Eichel to quietly transition to the college game, timidly dip his toe into the waters and learn from his elders as he sought a regular spot in the BU lineup, it took just three games to shatter that notion. Before the first piece of Halloween candy had been handed out, and before Eichel had even turned 18, he had helped the Terriers to a 3-0-0 record from his post as the team’s top line center and was averaging two points per game.

“It’s been awesome,” Eichel said, a day after celebrating his official start of adulthood via a post-practice dinner with family. “For years, I kind of imagined what it would be like to play at Agganis, and it was all of that and more.”

In just a few years, Eichel has experienced a meteoric rise from being considered a good player, but not good enough to get much notice from recruiters, to being a sought-after future collegian, to being considered a high-end potential NHL draft pick to becoming the guy nobody expects to be available when the third pick is made at next summer’s NHL Entry Draft in Sunrise, Fla.

Since hitting the ice as a member of the Boston University Terriers, freshman Jack Eichel has lived up to the hype by lifting the powerhouse program back to the top of the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine College Poll.Since hitting the ice as a member of the Boston University Terriers, freshman Jack Eichel has lived up to the hype by lifting the powerhouse program back to the top of the USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine College Poll.

It’s also produced a hockey odd couple of sorts. Eichel and Canadian star forward Connor McDavid are the consensus top two names that most in the know expect to be called in June at the home rink of the Florida Panthers. 

So, it would be expected that while getting used to campus life and the college game, Eichel is also keeping an eye on the bottom of the NHL standings, to get an idea of what currently-struggling team — Winnipeg, Buffalo, Toronto, Edmonton, Florida, Carolina or Arizona — might be his first post-college employer.

Eichel admits that he’s an NHL junkie, browsing NHL.com at all hours, and watching NHL on the Fly whenever he can, but the draft and a life in the NHL someday are all still far off. He’s doing his best, despite the sudden stardom and all the media attention that comes with it, to keep his gaze on the near future and his immediate goals.

“I try to just focus on what’s going on on the ice,” Eichel said. “The NHL is something I’ve dreamed about, but the first priority is to make this an exciting year for my family and I, having fun and helping BU win hockey games.”

Eichel does that with kind of a perfect storm of hockey sense and high-level skill. Ask three different coaches who have worked with him on-ice, and you get three different answers about what makes him such an impact player.

“He makes coaches smarter,” joked Don Lucia, the long-time University of Minnesota coach who worked with Eichel at last year’s World Junior Championship in Malmo, Sweden. 

Nearly a decade ago, Lucia was in Quinn’s shoes with a budding American hockey star — Phil Kessel — on his Gophers’ roster. He admits there are some parallels and enjoyable challenges to be had with a player of Eichel’s caliber on a collegiate roster, even if it’s only for a year or two.

“There’s a different approach because you know you’re not going to have them that long,” Lucia said. “Where it comes into play is in what kind of kid they are, and where their mindset is during the year. This is his draft year, so is his mindset on the draft, or is his mindset on BU? 

“Being around him last year, and seeing the type of kid he is, I have no doubt that his mindset is on BU, and being a key cog on the World Juniors level again. Not only is he a unique player, he’s a really quality kid, too.”

While some draw the comparisons to Kessel and his ability to bring offense on seemingly every shift, others go further back when looking for an American star with such promise, claiming that Mike Modano is the last talent of Eichel’s caliber to come from the USA. 

 

Jack Eichel stood out among the top American players who competed at the 2014 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo, N.Y.Jack Eichel stood out among the top American players who competed at the 2014 CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game in Buffalo, N.Y.

Quinn marvels at what a complete package of offensive sense and tools Eichel brings to the ice, and long before the freshman ever faced a real opponent, knew where he would fit in on the Terriers’ depth chart.

 

“We knew without question that he would be our first line center,” Quinn said. “You don’t have to be a hockey genius to figure that one out. He’d be anyone’s top-line center.”

And the pressure that comes with centering an up-and-coming college team’s top line is just one more challenge, alongside the workload of being a college freshman and the off-ice attention that seems to be mounting by the day. 

Former BU star Mike Grier knows all about those challenges, after a Hobey Baker candidate run with the Terriers and helping them to the 1995 NCAA title. After coaching Eichel at the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game, where he was given an up-close view of the person and  player, Grier came away in awe.

“He’s an impressive individual. Not many 17-year-olds could handle what’s been thrown on his plate,” Grier said after Eichel was named the game’s most valuable player. 

“He’s been getting media requests for two years, and they’ve been talking about who’s going to go No. 1 in the draft. That’s a lot of pressure. Social media and all that stuff, it can’t be easy for a 17-year-old. It would be easy for him to be cocky and full of himself, but he’s not. He’s a humble kid. It says a lot about his parents and his upbringing, and I think it bodes well for his future.”

Eichel grew up outside of Boston in North Chelmsford, Mass., near the historic textile mills of Lowell, and not too far south of the New Hampshire state line. In the heart of Hockey East country, where passion for college hockey runs deep, Eichel has admitted he may have been more of a Boston College fan as a kid but chose to wear the Terriers sweater instead. Like any hockey-crazy New England kid, Eichel considers TD Garden — home of the Bruins —  a special place and knows full well that the 2015 NCAA Frozen Four will be played there. But again, that’s in the distant future.

A few weeks before the Frozen Four, the Hockey East championships will be held there. And a few weeks before that, Eichel will get to lead BU in the quest for regional pride, when the legendary Beanpot Tournament is held at the Garden.

But before all of that happens, there’s another chance to wear the red, white and blue, which has Eichel dreaming of winning gold, again. 

Last winter, he was the youngest member of Lucia’s Team USA squad that finished fifth in Sweden. He got another crack at a medal in April and captured gold at the IIHF World U18 Championships, with the Americans beating the Czech Republic in the final. The 2015 World Juniors mean another chance to represent his country, this time in McDavid’s backyard, with Toronto and Montreal co-hosting the games.

“It was a huge honor to play in the World Juniors and a great experience,” said Eichel, who registered five points as a 17-year-old in last year’s tournament. “We didn’t do as much as we wanted, but we all learned a lot from the coaches. And any time you get to play for your country, it’s an amazing thing.”

The hope of returning BU hockey to national prominence in April, and the promise of fame and fortune in the NHL come June, are still far-off dreams for the next rising American hockey star. He’s got class, then practice, then another opponent to prepare for.

There’s the potential for a stunning sunrise down the road, and a surely bright future for Jack Eichel wherever he ends up playing for a paycheck. But for now, he’s firmly gripping the steering wheel, with his eyes locked on the road ahead.

Issue: 
2014-12

Poll

Who is your favorite American player?: