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Sports Authority

O’Connell: USA hockey hopes lie with Eichel

| Thursday, October 1, 2015

If one were asked to produce a Mount Rushmore-esque monument of all time great NHL players, who would likely make the list for consideration?

Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Glen Hall, Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux … the list goes on and on. There is a veritable pile of legendary players boasting résumés that might warrant them a spot on such a testament to the sport of hockey in North America.

Yet I can’t help but wonder whether hockey fans would struggle to conceptualize a similar monument to American hockey players. The first three names to come to mind — Mike Modano, Brett Hull (who barely counts — despite his American citizenship, he was born and raised in Canada) and Chris Chelios — are all famous in their own right, and would likely belong in any discussion of the greatest of all time. Add to the list the likes of international amateur heroes such as Miracle on Ice captain Mike Eruzione, if you’d like. Beyond that, though, the stockpile of American hockey greats begins to rapidly dip into the obscure.

Sure, the likes of Brian Leetch, Joe Mullen and Pat LaFontaine were fantastic athletes and ambassadors of the sport, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a casual fan today that could name one of them, let alone all three. The sad truth is that the annals of American hockey history are somewhat threadbare when it comes to lasting impressions. For that reason, American hockey fans should be very excited about the Buffalo Sabres this year.

I am speaking of course of the imminent emergence of the latest American Phenom to enter the NHL — perhaps the most hyped player to come from south of the Canadian border since Patrick Kane (who, coincidentally, was born and raised in Buffalo). Born in 1996, the 18-year-old Jack Eichel was drafted second overall by the Sabres this past June — and Eichel would have likely gone first in a heartbeat, had he not entered in a draft class that featured pre-anointed Edmonton Oilers messiah Connor McDavid.

We have in Eichel an example of a big, physical hockey player who represents a constant scoring threat and plays a very exciting brand of hockey. Though hockey fans are already comparing him to Patrick Kane and Mike Modono, his game has a certain edge to it that those finesse players are not known for. With his sizeable frame, Eichel skates like a power forward, but his release is one of the quickest and most accurate to be seen in a rookie in a very long time. He truly is the complete package.

And he’s also America’s best hope for a true national hockey icon.

American players in the NHL today largely fill supporting roles on their teams — at best serving as co-stars alongside their Canadian or European leading men, and at worst playing quietly in the shadows of their foreign forebears. But there is little doubt amidst the hockey-consuming media this Sabre’s squad will be Eichel’s team to guide and define. If he plays up to his expectations, he will be the face of Buffalo and the star a rabid, upstate New York hockey fanbase will flock to see.

The NHL is experiencing a golden age, and hockey players are bigger, faster and better than they ever have been. Because of that, American hockey fans regardless of allegiance should be looking forward to the Sabres’ Oct. 8 matchup against Ottawa.

It could be the chance of a lifetime to see a new face start building his résumé for entry onto the Mount Rushmore of American Hockey.

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