LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — All he wanted to do was play hockey. By age two, Jack Eichel was walking around the house with a yellow mini-stick in his hand. By three, he had already started skating by pushing a crate around on the ice to maintain his balance.
When he was four, Eichel was told by minor hockey organizers in Chelmsford, Mass., that he was too young to join their program and would have to wait. He pestered his parents, Bob and Anne, to the point where they finally relented and had him enrolled across the state line in Nashua, N.H., where the rink was only three miles from their home.
“He was a pain in the neck,” said Bob, of Jack’s persistence. “We held him off for as long as possible.”
Having grown up in Melrose, Mass., a suburb of Boston, Bob Eichel was a huge fan of the Bruins. His favourite player – of course – was Bobby Orr. Putting Jack and his older sister Jessie in skates and passing on his love of the game was a no-brainer.
Bob would give Jack instructions such as “stretch your stride” and Jack would listen intently. It wasn’t uncommon to find Jack skating around in his little red snowsuit on one of the nearby ponds shooting pucks before school.
“He gave me all the hockey I wanted when I was young,” said the now 17-year-old of his dad. “We were always on the ice together and he’s been a huge influence on me.”
These days, Eichel’s skating stride is effortless and powerful. He is billed as the best American prospect to come out of the country since Mike Modano, and based on his play to date the hype is warranted. He is, by far, the best U.S. prospect eligible for the 2015 NHL draft and – along with Canadian star Connor McDavid – has been talked about as the potential top pick.
At last week’s U.S. National Junior Evaluation Camp for the 2015 world junior championships, the forward was a force against the likes of reigning champs Finland and silver-winning Sweden.
Against Finland, Eichel netted a goal and four assists. The young American’s innovation on ice included a jaw-dropping, spin-o-rama backhand pass to linemate Alex Tuch, who scored on the play.
At times it appeared as if he was toying with players on the other side. He was everywhere.
“I think it’s the long stride,” said Sonny Milano, Eichel’s Team USA teammate and childhood friend. “He’ll take one stride and it’ll be the equivalent of three strides for someone else. His speed is real deceptive, but he’s got it all – a great shot, smart player – he’s everything you want in a hockey player.”
Although Eichel starting playing at a very early age, his rise through the ranks isn’t the result of 24/7, year-round devotion to hockey. His parents didn’t make hockey an all-consuming sport for their son. In the summer, there were no intense hockey camps, sport-specific training or dry land sessions. Instead, the Eichels wanted Jack to have many different experiences.
Bob says he and Anne made a conscious effort to limit Jack’s hockey time to keep him well-rounded and to try and make sure the game was fun, which also included playing defence.
Sports had always been a big part of their family. Both Bob and Anne are big baseball fans and Jessie, 21, rows crew for Merrimack College. As a result, Jack had very limited exposure to hockey in the summer, instead playing baseball, basketball and lacrosse.
In fact, Eichel didn’t have a single skating lesson until he was 13 when he started working with former Bruins skating coach John McLean.
“I always wanted to be on the ice, but my parents kind of held me back because they didn’t want to burn me out and have me on the ice too much,” said Eichel.
“When I got to the age when hockey became really serious, obviously I started playing throughout the summer. I think my parents did a really good job.”
It was when he hit his early teens that Eichel went though his first big growth spurt, shooting up from 5-foot-9 and 120-pounds to six feet and adding some 40 pounds to his frame. Almost overnight things started to fall into place.
Milano and Eichel met when they were teammates on the Jr. Bruins for a selects camp when they were around seven. Milano remembers they were in the ninth grade when Jack, always considered a good player, came into his own and shocked people with his development.
“I hadn’t seen him in a year and he came back and he was the best player,” said Milano, a first-round pick of the Columbus Blue Jackets. “Off the ice I recognized him, but on the ice he just became this phenomenon out of nowhere.”
U.S. national team coach Mark Osiecki knows he has someone special and calls the opportunity to work with one of the top-rated players for the 2015 NHL draft “a blessing”.
“He could probably jump into the NHL right now with his skating ability,” said Osiecki. “Physically he still has a ways to go, but man is he an unbelievable talent.”
Tuch played with Eichel for two years with the U.S. National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich. Last season the two players were paired together on the same line and Tuch, a first-round pick of the Minnesota Wild, was able to appreciate Eichel’s impressive skill set. With the under-18 team, Eichel scored 38 goals and 87 points in 53 games.
At the U.S. team’s camp here, Eichel centered a line with Tuch and Tyler Motte. The trio combined for 18 points in two games, with Eichel leading the team with eight points (one goal, seven assists).
“It’s so special to play with him,” said Tuch. “It’s a lot of fun. He’s brings a whole different level of skill to the table. I just work off of him because makes space for me being a big guy out there.
“Milano brings a lot of skill to the table, but Eichel is just a really special player.”
It wasn’t until he won bronze at the world under-17 challenge in 2012 that Eichel realized just how good he was playing against the likes of McDavid. Growing up in the bubble of the New England hockey scene, the best he could do was compare himself to what he had seen in North America. It was only when he started skating against the rest of the world that he found an additional confidence for his game.
“For me, always playing around New England, I never really got to see the whole map,” said Eichel. “Obviously I played a lot of teams from Canada in tournaments, but when I was able to go and play against teams like Sweden and Finland and see everyone it was nice.”
The big step came last year when Eichel was the youngest player to make Team USA’s world junior squad for the tournament in Malmo, Sweden. As a 17-year-old, he was one of the youngest but one of the best players on the ice. He credits head coach Don Lucia for putting him in situations to succeed and for not trying to change his game for the tournament.
He’ll be back again this year looking to help Team USA improve on its fifth-place finish when the tournament moves back to North America in Toronto and Montreal.
“I have the experience from last year and I think I have to expect more out of myself and I think the coaching staff and everyone on the team expects more out of me,” said Eichel. “My responsibility is obviously a lot higher than it was last year.”
Off the ice, the now 6-foot-1, 190-pound forward is friendly, funny and outgoing. In the dressing room, however, Osiecki says Eichel is more of a quiet leader.
“He picks and chooses,” said the coach. “He’s very focused (and his) hockey intelligence is off the charts.”
In interviews, Eichel easy to talk to and Milano says sometimes he has a hard time getting his friend to “shut up sometimes.” They’ll often play table tennis or other games against one another and there’s no such thing as playing for fun, because Eichel has to win. Milano believes it’s that drive that has made Eichel so successful.
“Whatever I do I think I take it really serious and I never like to lose in anything no matter what it is,” said Eichel. “We’re pretty competitive in ping pong or volleyball or golf - I really want to win.”
And that goes for the 2015 NHL draft as well, where there is debate about whether Eichel has the goods to supplant McDavid as the top pick for the draft. Unlike, Eichel, who burst on to the hockey radar in the last few years, McDavid has been profiled and talked about since he was a pre-teen.
“I think it’s in everyone’s competitive nature that they want to be number one,” said Eichel. “If I stood here and said I didn’t want to go No. 1, I’d be lying.
“Obviously it would mean a lot to me and my family, but it’s not going to keep me up at night.”