A dangerous game

Jack Eichel doesn’t have an outstanding reputation as being a brash, sharp-tongued character, but lately, his words are getting as much attention as his play on the ice is.

When he subtly called out the rest of his team for their poor performance on the ice, it was viewed as a necessary declaration by the team’s most promising talent. It was a stepping stone toward assuming a position of responsibility for the young man who may one day be the leader of this hockey club.

He drew some laughs when he tweeted that Tom Brady was the “GOAT” after Super Bowl LI, harmlessly breaking Buffalo fans’ backs by lauding the bane of our NFL team.

He got a little more deliberate with that back-breaking after Tuesday’s overtime win over the San Jose Sharks–a game where the Sabres fell behind 4-1 at one point and were booed by the home crowd.

“We got the building going and some energy in here after they were booing us off the ice,” Jack said. “We win a game in overtime and everyone loves us again, so it’s interesting how that works.”

That’s no laughing matter. Jack can celebrate Tom Brady all he wants, but taking what was perceived as a shot at the blue and gold faithful is dangerous business.

His frustration was understandable. This is a young man who lives and breathes hockey. He is a hyper-competitive player who doesn’t like losing, and, despite signs of improvement, the Buffalo Sabres have done plenty of losing this season and last.

He has since elaborated on his comments and softened his original words, so it doesn’t seem like a war of words is brewing.

“You can boo us if we’re not playing well. If we’re playing well, then be into the game and have some energy out there. I think that’s the point I was trying to get at. I think it was taken a little out of context. So be it.” – Jack Eichel

It was a good lesson for the young superstar in the tricky art of managing words. Hopefully he understands that challenging fans is a fight that he can’t win.

The record books show a lopsided history in favor of the fans when professional athletes decide to start a feud with them. Once a dedicated fan has become frustrated enough with their team that they choose to berate the team’s efforts, you’re not going to change that fan’s mind by criticizing them.

On any given night inside KeyBank Center, Jack is one voice against more than 19,000. Even a player of his caliber, and his renown will get drowned out by dissatisfaction.

Former Buffalo Sabres captain Craig Rivet–who had a well-documented clash with the fans and media during the tail-end of his time in Montreal–wasn’t exactly sympathetic to Jack’s complaints, either.

“When you s*** so bad for two periods, and people pay a ton of money to go and watch you play because you’re an entertainer, they can boo if they want to boo,” said Rivet the following day after the 5-4 overtime victory over San Jose.

If a fan pays money out of their own pocket to attend a sporting event, they have every right to voice their displeasure with a poor product.

They don’t like to see the team lose games any more than Jack does, and they’ve had to witness it for far longer than Jack has. While he has yet to endure two disappointing seasons under the Buffalo banner, Sabres fans have had to trudge through five straight seasons without a playoff berth, and they’re likely on their way to a sixth. They’re approaching a decade since their NHL team won a playoff series.

Fans have taken this futility on the chin, while often paying more money than what it’s probably worth. Despite last season offering no playoff excitement, season ticket prices saw an increase for 2016-17. As it has turned out, fans were asked to pay more money to watch a team fight for dead last in the Eastern Conference.

Fans spent more money to endure losses. Jack is getting paid nearly a million dollars for the same.

It doesn’t means that fans are free to do whatever their infuriated minds can dream. There are limits to how they can voice displeasure. Hurling objects or making physical contact of any manner is unacceptable. Verbal attacks shouldn’t be related to anything other than the performances by the athletes; personal barbs are uncalled for.

Booing a Sabres team that falls down 4-1 after two periods of atrocious hockey, with the roster that this club has? There’s not a darn thing unethical about that. Those fans who had to sit there and watch that listless effort were well within their rights to express disapproval in a civil manner.

Jack, himself, has done so before.

“As a whole team, everyone needs to look in the mirror and we all need to get a lot better,” Jack said in early January during a media scrum. “Power play, we had a five-on-three, we don’t score. It’s not good enough. Penalty kill, we continue to put pucks on the other team’s stick on the kill. It’s not good enough. Five-on-five, we don’t score enough goals, either.”

It may be objective than a chorus of boos, it may have more tact than yelling “You guys stink!” or any statement of that variety, but the motivating factors are the same–disapproval of the team’s performance.

Jack could have expressed his frustration in private. He instead chose a public forum to target his teammates.

That’s what the fans did. They had the miserable home game against San Jose as their outlet, and Jack had his media scrum that afternoon–which he had to know would quickly make headlines.

Buffalo may not be Philadelphia or Montreal when it comes to fans and media being harsh on its athletes, but we’re not exempt from animosity occurring between the groups. A feud with the blue and gold faithful is the last thing that this young Sabres club needs as they gradually mature. Between the daily rigors of an 82-game NHL season and, at least this season, a nonstop series of freak injuries, they have more than enough on their minds.

Tension with the home crowds inside KeyBank Center isn’t going to get us any closer to the playoffs that the fans, Jack, and his teammates all want so desperately.

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