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Jack Eichel eager to get back to playing hockey with Knights

Updated November 8, 2021 - 2:51 pm

When Jack Eichel collected his bags at the airport Sunday, a welcoming committee from the Golden Knights was nowhere to be found.

After seeing the way other big-name acquisitions had been greeted by the team’s mascots, cheerleaders and drumline, Eichel was surprised he seemed to be in the clear.

“But then I got to the hotel. It was a great welcome,” Eichel said. “As a player you appreciate that. I think you feel wanted.”

Eichel received the royal treatment on his arrival and continued his tour of the city Monday.

He visited City National Arena for the first time since Thursday’s blockbuster trade from Buffalo and met some of his new teammates along with the coaching staff.

Eichel is expected to be in attendance Tuesday when the Knights host the Seattle Kraken at T-Mobile Arena to start a six-game homestand.

“Relief is the best way to describe it,” Eichel said. “I’ve been through a lot in the last eight months physically, mentally, emotionally. I think to just put all that to rest and get back to playing hockey, it’s a pretty good feeling.”

Eichel is sidelined with a herniated disk in his neck he injured in March and battled with the Sabres organization over his treatment. Under the NHL collective bargaining agreement, teams have the final say on the treatment of injuries.

That feud ended with the trade to the Knights, who approved Eichel’s preferred artificial disk replacement surgery, a procedure that has never been performed on an NHL player.

He is scheduled to have surgery Friday in Denver, and the timetable for Eichel’s return is three to five months. Eichel is confident he will return to the player who produced a career-best 36 goals and 78 points in 68 games during the 2019-20 season.

“I feel very fortunate to be in a situation like that because I’ve been pretty outspoken about standing up for what I believe in and doing what I think is best for myself,” Eichel said. “Having their support makes the whole process a lot better.”

Eichel, 25, is hopeful his plight leads to changes in the collective bargaining agreement that would allow players and teams to collaborate on the treatment of injuries.

Knights goalie Robin Lehner was critical of the NHL Players’ Association and the Sabres on Twitter last month while Eichel’s status remained up in the air.

Lehner and Eichel were teammates for three seasons in Buffalo from 2015 to 2018.

“I remember reaching out to him and just saying how appreciative I was that he was shining light on the situation,” Eichel said. “Him doing that I really think it did help my situation and I appreciate it. Robin’s someone who speaks up when he believes in something and he stands behind it. For me that meant a lot, it meant a lot to my family.”

Eichel said it was unfortunate the way his time in Buffalo ended. But he said he was appreciative of his six seasons with the Sabres after he was drafted No. 2 overall in 2015 behind Edmonton’s Connor McDavid. The two will now be rivals in the Pacific Division for years to come.

With the Knights, Eichel will be part of a strong nucleus that includes captain Mark Stone, defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and more. That will take some of the pressure off Eichel, who shouldered much of the criticism for Buffalo’s lack of success.

“I think there’s a lot more in me,” Eichel said. “This is about as motivated as I’ve been. I think there’s a lot of people out there that may be doubting me or don’t think I’m going to get back to the form I was in. I look forward to putting all those doubts to rest and getting back to the level that I believe I can play.”

Contact David Schoen at dschoen@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5203. Follow @DavidSchoenLVRJ on Twitter.

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