BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — Jack Eichel acknowledged being surprised and hurt by the jeers from Sabres fans last March when he returned for the first time since being traded to the Golden Knights.
Enjoying good health and good vibrations from Vegas’ strong start to this season, Eichel is prepared for the reception he’ll receive Thursday night when playing in Buffalo for the only time this season.
“I just know what to expect this year,” Eichel said following Thursday morning’s game day skate. “It’s going to be a good crowd and just got to be ready to go at puck drop.”
Eichel had an emotional response to post-breakup booing from the crowd of 12,437 at KeyBank Center, which was the largest in Buffalo to that point of the season.
“This is about the loudest I’ve heard this place ever,” Eichel chortled. “Really. After it only took seven years and me leaving for them to get in to the game.”
Eichel reflected on that comment Thursday, offering no regret, but indicating his feelings have softened with time.
“I probably shouldn’t have been last year, but I was a little surprised by the reception,” Eichel said. “I’m just like anyone else. I’m a human being. It was emotional for me like it probably was for them. Maybe I was a little bit hurt. That’s probably why I said the things I said.
“Listen, that’s all in the past now. I’m not going to sit here and say, “I wish I didn’t say it.’ I just don’t think there’s enough time for that. What happened, happened. It’s in the past. I’m just trying to focus on the present. And we have a big game tonight. That’s what I’m worried about.”
Once deemed the franchise’s savior after being selected with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft, Eichel became the symbol of the team’s dysfunction over a six-year stint in which Buffalo failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Further complicating matters was an eight-month public squabble over how to treat Eichel’s neck injury, which eventually led to him getting his preferred treatment — disk replacement surgery — following the trade to Vegas some 53 weeks ago.
Now fully healthy, Eichel is leading the surging Pacific Division-leading Golden Knights with 15 points (six goals, nine assists), and said he feels better prepared for whatever the Buffalo crowd might have in store.
“What happened, happened. It’s in the past,” Eichel said. “I’m trying to just focus on the present, and we have a big game tonight. That’s what I’m worried about.”
Otherwise, the 26-year-old bears no hard feelings toward Buffalo or the Sabres.
On the Golden Knights’ off day Wednesday, Eichel took teammates to a local bar for chicken wings for lunch and spent the evening with current Sabres captain Kyle Okposo and his family.
“I’m very thankful for my time in Buffalo and everything I received here from the organization, and all the fans and people of the city,” Eichel said. “I’ve moved on, and I’m happy where I’m at right now.”
He has little reason to complain. The Golden Knights (12-2) are on a roll this season after a rash of injuries led to Vegas missing the playoffs for the first time since the expansion franchise began play in 2017-18.
They entered Buffalo riding an eight-game winning streak, tying the team’s second-longest, and two short of the franchise record. The Golden Knights’ 12 wins are a league-best, so is their 7-1 road record, and they lead the NHL with four wins when trailing in the third period.
The Sabres (7-6) are in the midst of a three-game skid. Coach Don Granato said the focus is on improving Buffalo’s inconsistencies rather than on Eichel.
“This is one of 82 (games), although you do recognize that there was a big trade made between the two teams,” Granato said. “Our job is to play. It’s not to get involved in hype.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.