Bigger than hockey

 

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Jack Eichel has done a pretty good job of finding his way into the headlines. Lately, he’s been doing it through his performances in the NHL preseason, where he’s played far better than any 18-year-old rookie has any right to. Some picturesque assists to Tyler Ennis one night, a gorgeous break-away goal another night, the media’s eating it all up.

They even indulge in Eichel when he’s not playing in an NHL contest. He became a breaking news update on SportsCenter for writing his signature on his contract with the Buffalo Sabres. Yahoo Sports, CBS Sports and FOX Sports all showcased the clip of him shooting a puck through the net in practice—a feat that was, in all probability, dumb luck.

And, boy, did social media have a good time making his infamous “Buffalo…I’m comin’ for ya!” clip go viral.

If anything about the Eichel media circus has taught us this year, it’s that no matter how well he actually ends up playing for the Sabres, his biggest impact on this organization won’t appear on the ice—it’ll appear in the headlines.

Eichel is a superstar first, and an elite hockey player, second.

This is especially going to ring true in his rookie year, when the Sabres organization and its fans will finally be able to boast a player of their own that has same kind of marketability as a Sidney Crosby, or a Steven Stamkos.

Also, NHL.com has selected Eichel as the favorite to win the Calder Trophy this season.

You can’t blame them if they’re a little excited. After all, it’s been some time since this franchise had a media darling. Former goaltender Ryan Miller had his moments in the limelight, the same with Dominik Hasek. But for all the attention that those famed netminders garnered, they never captured the same following that the very best offensive players had. Whether it’s Miller, or Hasek, or Roy, or Lundqvist, it’s been hard for a player who wears a mask all the time to be the face of the league.

Fans like performances that put points on the scoreboard; there are more people out there who will turn their heads for a stellar goal than there are for blocked shot. It’s the same reason why the MLB advertises home runs more than it does catches in the outfield, or why J.J. Watt of the NFL’s Houston Texans will never have the same following that Peyton Manning or Tom Brady do.

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If his time at the 2015 World Ice Hockey Championships and his showings in the NHL preseason are any kind of foreshadowing, Eichel’s going to play a big role in lots of pucks hitting the back of the net.

Another part of Eichel’s massive drawing power comes from something he’s had no control over—the country he was born in.

When you look at the talent that has represented USA Hockey over the last several years, you see a lot of great players, but very few that are considered among the elite in the NHL. Take out goaltenders like Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick, and you’re pretty much left with Patrick Kane as your lone player with some stardom to his name.

No doubt about it, USA Hockey wants to make Eichel their poster boy. He’s a big, strong kid (6’2, 196 pounds) who plays an exciting blend of hockey, and he has the skill set that looks like it can match the Crosbys and the Toews and the Ovechkins of the NHL.

It works out perfectly that the next Winter Olympics won’t be until 2018 in South Korea. When January 2018 rolls around, Eichel will be 22 years old, and will have had more than three years to cut his teeth in the NHL. He won’t be that kid fresh out of college, any longer; by then, he’ll be an experienced NHLer, and probably the leading candidate for captain of both his NHL team, and his national team.

The Winter Olympics is when hockey finds its biggest audience, especially in the USA, so our city is going to be put on the map when Eichel represents the Sabres organization on a global stage.

Heck, it’ll be put on the map simply from what the NHL does with him.

It’s no secret that hockey sits behind such other sports like football, baseball and basketball as far as popularity goes here in America. But now that there’s a red-blooded American male that has the potential to be the face of his league, the NHL has exactly what it needs to stir up some hockey love across the states.

eichel3It means Eichel and the rest of the Sabres crew are going to get a lot of nationally-televised games in the future. It means Eichel is going to show up on all kinds of commercials and promotional materials, maybe even someday being the first Sabre to grace the cover of the annual NHL video game. It means #15 blue and gold jerseys will be sold all across the country—not just at the Sabres Store inside First Niagara Center, or the local Laux Sporting Goods.

It also means the NHL and USA Hockey are going to want to make a few more visits here, which is exactly what Sabres owner Terry Pegula and co. have set out for from the get-go. With the HarborCenter up and running at full-functionality next door to First Niagara Center, and one of the biggest prospects ever to hit the sport wearing the Sabres logo, Buffalo becomes that much more of an appealing destination for such events like the World Junior Championships and the NHL All-Star Game.

When those start happening with regularity in Western New York, Buffalo can confidently secure its title of “Hockey Heaven.”

With Eichel at the helm, it may even swipe “Hockeytown” away from Detroit.

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