Jack Eichel didn’t hesitate when he returned to Buffalo on Thursday night. The Golden Knights center played his first game against the Sabers since being traded to Vegas on Nov. 4, losing by a 3-1 decision.
Eichel, 25, was Buffalo’s second pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, and he captained the team from 2018-21. But the relationship soured last season, leading to the trade .
Eichel was in Vegas’ starting lineup for Thursday’s game and got plenty of boos from the crowd every time he touched the puck. The Sabers also showed him a tribute video during the first TV break, which drew more boos – and applause – from the crowd of 12,437.
It was Eichel, however, who had the final say.
“It’s the loudest I’ve ever heard here. Really,” Eichel said after the game. “It only took seven years and I left for them to come into the game. It was a nice tribute. There were a lot of people here supporting me, and there were a lot of people booing me . They must just boo me because they wish I was still here, I don’t know.”
It wasn’t just the boos that rained down on Eichel, either. As he patrolled the ice during Thursday’s warm-ups, Eichel was greeted by a handful of signs along the Keybank Center boards that ranged from upbeat, “Welcome, Jack!” to the disgruntled, “Thanks for nothing, Eichel.”
When the final bell rang, a fan also threw an Eichel Sabers jersey onto the ice.
In another wrinkle, both players Buffalo acquired in the trade from Eichel — Peyton Krebs and Alex Tuch — scored in the Sabers’ win. Eichel himself finished minus-one, with two shots on goal in 17:31.
In 375 games with the Sabers, Eichel produced 139 goals and 355 points. He returned to Buffalo just 10 games into his tenure with the Golden Knights, after being sidelined for months after surgery for a herniated disc in November. The center had however taken the upper hand, registering three goals and seven points before Thursday.
Even though the result was not what Eichel was hoping for, he was happy to have avoided this homecoming.
“I’m pretty happy it’s over. Let’s move on,” he said. “It’s not an easy game to play. I’m not going to sit here and say it was. It’s frustrating. We wanted to win here and we didn’t.”
Eichel said he always tried to stay focused on the game itself. When his video tribute was released, there were many images of Eichel’s various charitable activities, many of which involved the town’s young people.
“I was trying not to watch it. I’ll watch it another time,” he said. “In a game situation, I didn’t want to get emotional, especially when you start involving some of the kids and some of the things that I’ve done in the community, it gets to me. But I appreciate the tribute and it sure people were there to cheer me on.”
The Eichel in this video might never have imagined where his path would go with the Sabres.
The relationship between the team and the player began to deteriorate midway through Eichel’s sixth season. He injured his neck in the Buffalo game on March 7, 2021, and in April the team announced that Eichel was out for the season with a herniated disc.
Eichel’s favorite treatment was surgery never performed on an NHL player. But Eichel was the Sabers’ star player and barely within the eight-year, $80 million contract he signed in 2018. The club wouldn’t allow him to go through the procedure he wanted, instead advocating rest and rehabilitation.
The deadlock did not suit Eichel.
“I’m a bit upset with the way things have been handled since I got injured,” Eichel told reporters in May. “I would be lying if I said things have been fine since my injury. There has been a bit of a disconnect, I think, between the organization and myself. It has been difficult at times.”
At training camp, the relationship appeared irreparable. Sabers general manager Kevyn Adams announced last September that not only had Eichel been stripped as Sabers captain, but that he had failed his physical and would not be available to start the season.
Adams didn’t rule out trading Eichel at the time, but took his time to work out a deal. In exchange for sending Eichel to Vegas, Buffalo received forward Tuch, Krebs, and first- and second-round picks.
A week after the trade, Eichel underwent disc replacement surgery at the Rocky Mountain Spine Clinic in Denver. It made its Vegas debut on February 17.