The Sun Is Rising in Buffalo

Mario Zucca

Jack Eichel is a teenager, and he will remain so for another year and two weeks. His hair is so tightly coiled, his cheeks so easily crimson, that you wonder exactly what sort of industrial operation churns away inside his head. He was taken second overall by the Buffalo Sabres in this summer’s NHL draft, though everyone seemed to agree that in any year without Connor McDavid on the board, Eichel would have been the first pick.

Eichel spent last season attending Boston University, having grown up in Massachusetts, and even when he suits up as the Green Bay Packers in a game of Madden, he monkeys with the settings so that they run the New England Patriots’ plays. “You gotta use Belichick’s playbook,” he says, with a deadpan assurance that would no doubt be appreciated by the impassive coaching legend himself. Eichel is at his stall in the Sabres locker room on the morning of a preseason game day in late September, and that is good news for everyone: It means he’s in the lineup tonight.

A week earlier, as the Sabres got set for their first home game of the preseason, Eichel wasn’t on the roster. Sabres fans understand that not every player appears in every game during the early stages of training camp, but that didn’t make them any less bummed.

“Why isn’t Eichel playing?” kids asked their parents outside the arena. “Ugh, no Eichel tonight,” dudes remarked to dudes inside the expansive (716) Food and Sport. A Sabres beat writer regarded me with mock pity: “Aw, you’re missing Eichel.” The reporter had just returned from Minnesota, a trip he wouldn’t normally make during training camp, but it had been worth it. The game wasn’t televised, so he was lucky to have been there in person to see Eichel’s debut: one goal, one assist.

The way everyone talked about the kid made him sound less like an athlete and more like a hot new restaurant or a limited-time-only museum show. You almost wanted to call him the Eichel, as if you were referring to the Marina Abramovic at the MoMA or something. Either way, the name of the exhibit could definitely be the same: “The Artist Is Present.”

With all of this attention on the team’s youngest member, it’s easy to forget that he’s far from the only notable new face on Buffalo’s revamped roster. Following two straight seasons of finishing DFL in the NHL, of approaching losing as a legitimate tactical goal rather than an outcome to avoid at all costs, the Sabres are now attempting to make a power turn and start transitioning back up the ice.

General manager Tim Murray — a quirky former scout described by the Buffalo News as the “bespectacled brewmaster of this Sabres’ rebuild” — has attempted to make good on an April 2014 promise that the evolution of the franchise would not rely on some goalpost-pushing five-year (or more!) plan. Jaded Buffalo fans, who love hockey so deeply that they can consistently be counted upon to generate top-five TV ratings regardless of whether their team wins (or is even out on the ice), might roll their eyes at this; the Sabres have missed the playoffs in six of the last eight seasons and haven’t advanced past the first round since 2007. But there’s reason to believe that the Sabres finally have a little skip in their skates.

Last winter, Buffalo acquired 24-year-old hotshot Evander Kane, who also once made an NHL roster at age 18, and a few years later had racked up a 57-point season. And thanks to some urging by Tyler Ennis, Murray made a draft-day trade in June that yielded Ryan O’Reilly, the sort of faceoff-taking, tough-minutes-swallowing player who gets roundly praised as underrated so often that the label starts to seem impossible by definition.

The Sabres also hired head coach Dan Bylsma, formerly of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the U.S. national team. They bought low on defenseman Cody Franson. They traded for Ottawa goalie Robin Lehner. And they made it known that, while they were clearly targeting established NHL talent, they’d also be giving a shot to some of the upsidey youngsters they had accumulated with their recent lottery picks, like 20-year-old defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen and 19-year-old forward Sam Reinhart.

This turnover all happened one year after Matt Moulson, who was traded from the Sabres to the Minnesota Wild in March 2014, came back to Buffalo — of his own volition! — when he became a free agent that summer. Choosing to return to such a floundering franchise may have seemed like an oddball career choice, but Moulson liked what he saw: some method to the madness, a general manager unafraid to strike, a promising roster mix of youth and experience, and generous, passionate ownership.

“I believed that when I signed back here that they can win a Stanley Cup,” Moulson said. “And they’ve done the right things to go in that direction. We have a lot of work to do, but it’s the right start.”

It hasn’t just been the hockey operations side of the business that has signaled a bold willingness to deal. The mentality originates all the way at the top — in this case, with multibillionaire owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who made their vast fortune in natural gas and have been spending it for years now on sports franchises, hockey rinks, urban development projects, and the intersection of all three.

New England Patriots v Buffalo BillsTom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

“When we came up here five years ago and Terry told me he wanted to buy the Buffalo Sabres, the truth of it is I tried to talk him out of it,” admitted Cliff Benson, the team’s chief development officer. He was standing in front of a crowd of mostly developers, politicians, and hospitality professionals gathered for a ribbon-cutting ceremony in honor of the three-week-old Marriott behind him. Through a big picture window about six floors up, people on exercise bikes and ellipticals gazed determinedly across cloudy skies, highway overpasses, and the Buffalo River canal.

“Number one, I said, why don’t we go to Florida? It’s a little bit warmer. And secondly, I said, if you’re going to own a sports team, you’re getting into a whole different business. Everyone’s going to shoot at you every day. And he said to me, ‘We’re going to Buffalo. We’re going to change that city, and that’s why we’re getting into the sports business: so we have a platform to change the city.’”

The Pegulas spent $189 million in February 2011 to purchase the Sabres (as well as the National Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits).1 It wouldn’t be their last purchase of a sports franchise. Last October, one of the Pegula daughters, Jessie, a professional tennis player, finished a workout and tweeted a screenshot of her phone. It showed the weather in Boca Raton, Florida, a vet appointment reminder, and a brief text from Dad: “We own Bills,” it said. The Pegulas had beaten out Donald Trump and a consortium fronted by Jon Bon Jovi with an all-cash, $1.4 billion offer to buy the NFL team from late owner Ralph Wilson’s estate.2

In the beginning, the Pegulas’ willingness to spend money got the Sabres into some trouble. The six-year, $27 million contract the team gave Ville Leino in the summer of 2011 would go down as one of the more egregious displays of wallet-emptying optimism in recent NHL history. (Last summer, the team bought out Leino’s contract, and he currently plays professional hockey in Latvia.) The Sabres failed to reach the playoffs that year and haven’t since, a trend that — depending on whom you ask — reached either its zenith or its logical cold-blooded conclusion last season as Buffalo nakedly maneuvered into last place in the standings. Jack Eichel was part of the reason why.

For several years, hockey insiders had been eyeing the trajectories of two young players the way meteorologists project the development and location of faraway tropical storms. In 2012, when he was 15, a good Ontario boy named Connor McDavid signed an endorsement contract with Reebok and was granted exceptional player status to allow him to play major junior hockey despite his young age.3 That same year, Eichel made a verbal commitment to one day suit up for Boston University. With both players eventually eligible for the 2015 NHL draft, their particular class became one of the most anticipated hockey cohorts in some time.

The consensus among scouts and other observers was that McDavid would almost certainly be selected first overall but that Eichel was such a lovely consolation prize that it was pretty hard to go wrong either way. The two-headed beast that came to be known as “McEichel,” combined with NHL lottery rules that guaranteed the league’s last-place team would, at worst, pick second in the draft,4 created a set of circumstances that led to one of the more blatant races to the bottom.

Some of the moves the Sabres made to best position the team for certain disgrace were remarkably savvy. In February, the Winnipeg Jets decided they’d had enough with Kane, who traveled with the former Atlanta Thrashers up to the team’s new home in Manitoba and in doing so went, not always fairly, from a young hockey sensation to a frequent subject of sensationalist headlines. (One of his more notorious crimes: posing for tacky photos in Vegas.) When the news came out that the frustrated Kane would be getting season-ending shoulder surgery, Murray, the GM, saw a great opportunity: Here was a chance to acquire a truly skilled young player at a reasonable cost, without having to actually play him and risk winning just yet. A Dallas Stars blog summed up the transaction as “the Mona Lisa of tank related masterpieces.”

But there were other springtime happenings that were far more awkward. When the basement-dwelling Arizona Coyotes beat the Sabres in overtime in late March, the Buffalo home crowd loudly rejoiced. Eichel started getting text messages from buddies about the phenomenon. “It’s kind of a bizarre thing to think about — that fans are cheering against their team, hoping they lose,” he told the Toronto Star. “But I guess, really, they’re just excited about the future.”

In the interim between buying the Sabres and securing the Bills, the Pegulas kept themselves busy with a development project on land adjacent to First Niagara Center, the Sabres’ arena. For years, the building had sat next to an uninspiring hodgepodge of parking lots and waterfront land — “this was a tragedy when we got here,” is how Benson put it; “we had ship parts and dirt” — and when the city sought proposals for how to make use of the area, Pegula put his hat into the ring.

Benson warned Pegula that developing a couple of hockey rinks and two levels of parking, their initial idea, would cause him to lose about $30 million out of pocket. Several years later, the project had ballooned into a couple of hockey rinks, five levels of parking, an athlete training center, several retail spaces and some restaurants, and a 200-room Marriott.5 The eventual price tag for what came to be Harborcenter topped $200 million of the Pegulas’ money. Millions of dollars worth of tax abatements, to be repaid from eventual proceeds generated by the new buildings, bolstered the development.

Now, with the finished project rising behind them, the town’s movers and shakers preened. Benson quoted the Book of Jeremiah: “If the city prospers, you too will prosper.” Mayor Byron Brown said that images of Buffalo as a place where nothing ever gets done were now fading away. Lance Shaner, an old buddy of the Pegulas who now owns the hotel group that operates the new Marriott, called Terry and Kim “dream-makers.”

Pegula himself got up and spoke for a few minutes. He earned serious laughs from the friendly crowd when he referred to his old-timey flip phone as “my handy-dandy here” and reminisced about how far he and Shaner had come. He could remember back when they were two unknowns playing racquetball in Olean, New York, he said, and now Shaner “has got a couple of jets down in State College.” (Somehow, he made this line sound almost folksy.)

He compared Buffalo’s potential to Pittsburgh, which went “from a dingy, smelly steel town into what is a pretty impressive city” thanks to the efforts of “a bunch of businesspeople and government getting together.” He said that while a lot of people see him as a Republican, he prefers to consider himself an American. “We could be feeling a little bit better today,” he admitted, referring to the Bills’ loss a day earlier to the New England Patriots. “But on the other side of town it’s still early,” he concluded, “and it’s early here, too.”

Staffers hurriedly unpacked sets of giant ceremonial scissors from bespoke giant ceremonial scissor cases and unspooled large swaths of ceremonial red ribbon from bespoke ceremonial red ribbon spools. Smiling for the cameras, the Pegulas and their collaborators stood at the Marriott parking valet station, counted to three, and made declarative snips. They repeated this in various permutations of people, pausing to sub in fresh lengths of ribbon for a good 10 to 15 minutes.

Evander Kane was at a waterfront restaurant in Malibu with a hockey buddy and both of their girlfriends this April when the NHL draft lottery rolled around. They asked a bartender to switch on the telecast, left the ladies at the table, and then watched as the Sabres didn’t win.

With the league’s worst record, the Sabres had a 20 percent chance of drawing the top pick; the Coyotes were second at 13.5 percent, and the Edmonton Oilers — who in 2010, 2011, and 2012 occupied the no. 1 spot — had an 11.5 percent shot at getting first dibs once again. Thanks in part to geography, Sabres fans had grown particularly enamored of McDavid over the years, many of them making the less than two-hour drive down the shore of Lake Erie to Pennsylvania to see him play for the OHL’s Erie Otters. (Murray was among them: “I watch him too much and I think too much about him,” he admitted to the New York Times in late March. “I wish I could help myself.”)

“Yeah, that was surprising,” recalled Kane of watching Edmonton’s name being called, a small smirk playing across his face.

Murray hadn’t been smiling, nor did he mince words when speaking to reporters. “I feel for the fans,” he said. “I mean, we went through a tough year, and I think that they were extremely excited about Connor.”

Eichel handled the awkward situation gracefully, pointing out that “I have a lot to offer” and asking “Who doesn’t want to be first?” A few months later, when he was brought in to meet with the Sabres at the NHL combine in Buffalo, he told Pegula that his parents had been happy when Buffalo lost the lottery.

“Maybe we won the lottery,” one Sabres employee replied.

“I think you did,” Eichel said.

On the day of the draft, Edmonton selected McDavid with their no. 1 pick. As the Sabres contingent made its way to the podium, Murray caught Eichel’s eye in the crowd and stared him down. Most general managers give a little song and dance before they make their pick, thank the host city, congratulate the Cup winners — Murray did none of that. He had scarcely even gotten to the mic before he leaned in and said just four words: “Buffalo selects Jack Eichel.”

jack-eichel-combineBill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Besides drafting Eichel, trading for O’Reilly, hiring Bylsma, getting Lehner, and acquiring Kane (and defenseman Zach Bogosian, his Winnipeg teammate), a Pegula-owned team made another hefty — well, once-hefty — offseason move earlier this year: It got Rex Ryan.

The self-described “biggest bandwagon” fan in hockey, Ryan has seemingly never turned down a chance to turn up in a jersey. The first-year Bills coach donned Rangers blue, Devils red, Flyers orange; he’s dropped the puck at an Islanders game in a Billy Smith sweater. He’s changed colors midgame. And yet he actually does have something of a hockey background, having spent much of his youth in the greater Toronto area, where he played street hockey6 and cheered for the Maple Leafs.

Ever the showman, Ryan recorded a video welcoming Bylsma to town when the Sabres hired the former Penguins coach, making sure to tie in the “One Buffalo” sports branding that the Pegulas have instituted across their various team holdings. He pointed out Bylsma’s offensive background and said it would mesh well with Ryan’s defensive focus. Bylsma returned the favor after one practice, saying he wanted to talk about a Bills win over Miami, and that he wished he could run hockey preseason like NFL training camp.

Several weeks ago, when Ryan walked out for his routine Wednesday press conference, he had hockey on the mind.

“So let’s start with the Sabres,” he said. “That Eichel — he’s an impressive kid.”

The night before, Eichel — the Eichel — had been on full display. In a preseason game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Eichel snagged the puck and opened scoring with a shorthanded breakaway goal in which he somehow managed to get exponentially faster with each stride while still barely looking as though he were skating at all. He was still wearing no. 41, not wanting to change into his desired no. 15 because, as he humbly pointed out, he still hadn’t technically made the team.

After the game, which Buffalo won 4-0, Eichel was practically giddy, his mouth yapping and his face flushed. “Only questions about Evander Kane!” he shouted as Kane, wrapped in a towel, tried to slide by his stall undetected to hit the showers. (A night earlier, the two had checked out a WWE event at First Niagara Center; Eichel has hit up a Bills game and a Shania Twain concert in the last few weeks as well.) He chatted about his rising comfort level with teammates and about scoring in front of the home crowd.

It was easy to see what Moulson, who with his wife and two children is hosting Eichel in his home this season,7 meant when he described his houseguest as “the type of person who likes to always be doing something — he’ll get up out of the blue and start playing with the kids.”

When a small media scrum developed around young prospect Evan Rodrigues, Eichel’s former BU teammate who had scored twice that night, Eichel sneaked over and hovered shirtless over the back of the group, blue eyes boring into Rodrigues’s soul as the poor guy tried his best not to laugh.

Buffalo fans are grimly conditioned to always prepare for the worst; they’ve lived through Scott Norwood’s “Wide Right” and Brett Hull’s “Skate in the Crease” and have, perhaps most valiantly, weathered endless yuks about their weather. They’ve watched one of their most beloved hockey locals, Patrick Kane, go through a terribly ugly and twisted summer, and seen one of their most exciting hockey newcomers, Ryan O’Reilly, sign with the Sabres and almost immediately get arrested back home for, according to police, drunk-driving an antique pickup truck into a Tim Hortons.

And so, when the season began with the team’s already questionable defensive corps banged up even further, and when Robin Lehner played poorly in goal and then promptly injured his ankle so badly that he won’t be playing at all for quite some time, and when the Sabres opened up their season — Ryan’s enthusiasm aside — with a pair of losses, it all felt bleakly familiar. Here we go again, and this time we can’t even tank.

But that first loss, to the Ottawa Senators, had silver linings: Eichel scored his first NHL goal, a top-shelf snipe that was as lethal as it was preternaturally poised, and the fans got to hear the hilarious new goal song they’d voted in: DJ Kool’s “Let Me Clear My Throat.” It sounded ridiculous; it felt perfect. Shortly after Eichel opened the scoring, Kane tied the game, but the goal was called back based on a belated video review of an offside skate. Rasmus Ristolainen, the 20-year-old Finnish defenseman whom the Sabres took eighth overall in the 2013 draft and whom Bylsma compares to Ekblad and Olli Maatta, almost added a goal, but it bounced off the post. All of these things were, at the very least, promising.

A 4-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning could be more easily written off: They were the reigning Eastern Conference champs, after all.

On Monday, in a Columbus Day matinee against the Blue Jackets, it all started coming together. Ristolainen finally netted that goal. O’Reilly also scored, assisted by Moulson and offseason pickup Jamie McGinn. The Blue Jackets narrowed the score to 2-1, and two minutes later Jack Eichel did a Jack Eichel thing. “Eichel steals puck and picks the top corner” is how the NHL chose to title its goal video, but a YouTube account called All Things Buffalo Sabres described it much more succinctly, and much better: “Jack Eichel Sick Goal.”

With the puck in Columbus’s zone, Eichel first tried setting up an assist. The puck ricocheted out to the blue line, and he won the race to it, narrowly and calmly keeping it in. He circled back around toward the far side of the faceoff circle, as if this were some casual warm-up drill, and skated wide. He saw Columbus goalie Sergei Bobrovsky go down, so he shot the puck up. Play-by-play guy Rick Jeanneret’s voice wavered and cracked. The fans were beside themselves. “dirty,” tweeted Jessie Pegula. “I watched this at least 15 times in a row #unreal,” added Kelly Pegula, her sister.

It was a Broadway performance, it was event viewing, it was a showstopper, it was an exhibit — Eichel’s “latest piece of artwork.” Yeah, yeah, it was the team’s third game, fine. But Sabres fans had gotten their chance to see the Eichel at the First Niagara Center. The artist was finally present. And it was worth every dollar of the hard-earned price of admission.

Filed Under: NHL, Buffalo Sabres, Buffalo Bills, Terry Pegula, Jack Eichel

grant_h_katie_sl_600

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes