BUFFALO – Jack Eichel was at home cooking dinner Tuesday night when his coach, Phil Housley, called and said the Sabres’ brass wanted to meet with him.
So Eichel left and drove to KeyBank Center. When he arrived, Housley, general manager Jason Botterill and owner Terry Pegula told the talented center he would be the 19th full-time captain in Sabres history.
“Really humbling moment,” Eichel said Wednesday inside KeyBank Center, where the Sabres open the season tonight against the Boston Bruins. “I feel honored.”
Eichel’s conversation with his coach, Botterill and Pegula “was just a great, intimate moment,” Housley said.
“We spoke at lengths about how invested I am in this city and this organization,” said Eichel, who’s beginning an eight-year, $80 million contract. “It’s an unbelievable feeling. I think it’s more or less just me trying to be myself and continue to do the things that make me the person that I am.”
Eichel, who turns 22 on Oct. 28, is the Sabres’ youngest captain ever. In earning the prestigious ‘C,’ the American has already taken his place beside franchise icons and former captains such as Jim Schoenfeld, Gilbert Perreault, Danny Gare and Pat LaFontaine.
Housley said Eichel “represents everything we want as far as our organization goes.”
“There were some really good, strong conversations about expectations and the way he’s got to lead,” he said. “We feel very confident in having Jack as our captain.”
A year ago, after the Sabres passed on re-signing Brian Gionta, the Sabres never named a captain and used Eichel as one of four alternate captains.
Many observers, of course, expected the Sabres would eventually award Eichel the captaincy. Still, in the recent past, it appeared the former second overall pick might not be ready for the honor.
Eichel famously pouted after the Sabres ended a disappointing 2016-17 season, giving terse answers and staring off into the distance during a news conference. Even early last year, as the team endured perhaps its worst season ever, Eichel occasionally sulked on his way to the bench during games.
But Housley has watched Eichel grow since last season’s wretched 31st-place finish. He sees a change in the way the face of the franchise carries himself day in and day out.
“I don’t think that I would have been given this opportunity if it wasn’t for the other leaders in this room that pushed me to be better and have taught me a lot about myself,” Eichel said.
Following the Sabres’ dreadful finish in April, Eichel spoke firmly, like a leader.
“I think it started after last season, the things he said to the media and just his growth through the summer and coming into camp,” Housley said. “He wants to win, he’s a tremendous competitor and I think he’s going to try to do everything in his power.”
He added: “We felt … that Jack has made the right steps in his maturity.”
Housley said picking Eichel was difficult because the Sabres’ leadership group has made “tremendous strides” since last season.
“It’s great to have a difficult decision regarding our captain,” Housley said.
In addition to collaborating with the coaching staff and management, Housley said he and Botterill talked with just about everyone – from the equipment managers to the high-performance and training staffs – around the players.
“It was a quite long evaluation from all of those individuals to come to a conclusion and decision,” Housley said.
Not long ago, Eichel said he was just a skill player “with a lot of aspirations” but no direction. He was simply happy being in his position.
Then Eichel started maturing. The constant losing changed him.
“I’ve taken a few years and went through some stuff you don’t want to go through in your career,” Eichel said. “A lot of people say you need to learn to lose before you learn to win. I had never been on a losing team before until the last few years. It was something new for me and just trying to get to the bottom of it.”
Housley stressed the Sabres want to have leadership by committee. The coaches selected defenseman Zach Bogosian and winger Kyle Okposo as alternate captains.
“A sign of a good captain is asking for help,” said Housley, who briefly served as the Winnipeg Jets’ captain in the early 1990s. “We have a tremendous leadership group in that room with Kyle Okposo and Zach Bogosian.”
Eichel said: “We feel pretty strongly about making the change from within the locker room. We think we have the group of guys to do it now.”
Housley believes the biggest task for a young captain is leading by example.
“He’s got to set the tone not only in practices but in the games,” Housley said. “I believe Jack has really shown that in the short amount of time from training camp leading up until today, and just doing the right things on and off the ice – respecting the community, getting out in the community.”
Sabres winger Jason Pominville, Buffalo’s captain for almost two seasons during his first stint in town, doesn’t want Eichel to change.
“You’ve had success for certain reasons,” Pominville said. “Don’t try to overdo things because guys can read through that. The biggest thing for him is just be yourself. I’ve told him that and I think he will. …
“He’s definitely ready to take that next step in his life and career.”
Building a legacy. #Sabres
Jack Eichel is your Buffalo Sabres captain. pic.twitter.com/10UI32oHAG
— Buffalo Sabres (@BuffaloSabres) October 3, 2018