ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Buffalo Sabres young star Jack Eichel, the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, spent time last week speaking to a crowd of 1,200 people at the All-Great Rochester Sports Awards dinner.
That same night, the only player selected higher than he was, Connor McDavid, was accepting the NHL Most Valuable Player award in Las Vegas.
“As much as I love speaking in front of all you guys, Connor McDavid is getting ready to accept the Most Valuable Player award at the NHL awards tonight in Las Vegas,’’ Eichel said. “I love being here talking to you, but I’d much rather be in his position.’’
Eichel spoke to USA TODAY High School Sports about his advice to young athletes, his experience as a teen, the transition to the NHL, his thoughts on the latest draft picks and more:
Q: What was the message you wanted to get across to the high schoolers?
A: I think it’s important to be able to put yourself in their shoes, being that age at one point not too long ago, and just looking at it as a transition, whether in life or athletically … Not everyone’s going to make it on a professional stage, but there’s a lot of dreams out there – a lot of parents want their kids to know – what does it take to get to that next level? What kind of sacrifice did you do? What do you tell young kids, young adults when they have that disappointment when they can’t go on?
Not everyone’s going to be a professional hockey player, not everyone’s going to be a professional football player. There are a lot of other careers out there. But there are things in what we do that can relate to the real world for these kids when they take that next step in their life after high school and doing whatever they need to in order to put their best foot forward and have a positive attitude. If you set your mind to something and work and sacrifice, you can do it. …
If there’s adversity or bumps in the road, rely on the people closest to you and just keep moving forward. Set your goals high and do everything you can to reach them.
Q: How was your high school experience different than a more traditional high school because you were playing for the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in the USHL as a teenager?
A: In high school, you play less games so maybe the games mean more because you’re playing for your school and for your community. It’s bigger than just your team. I was fortunate enough to play for the U.S. National Team so every time you go out there, you’re representing your country. It was a huge scale and a huge honor, and I just enjoyed every day you get an opportunity to do that. It’s a privilege, so I just try to get better every day. But no matter where you play, you’re going to go through adversity — whether it be day-to-day or longer term so it’s what you do to get through it.
Q: Before the event, you were able to visit some children at the children’s hospital in town. What was that experience like?
A: It’s great to be able to go visit some sick kids who are going through some tough times … It’s the beginning of summer and a lot of them would love to be outside, enjoying their time with their friends, and unfortunately they’re in the hospital. If I can go in there and put a smile on their face, it means the world to me and hopefully it can help them.
Q: The NHL Draft was this weekend. Obviously, you were the No. 2 pick overall, but what advice would you give the players who were selected?
A: Whenever you get picked, whether it’s early or late, you can do whatever you want with that. I’ve had friends that have been late picks and went on to play in the NHL and those that have been picked early and never went up. At most, the draft is just a number, and at the end of the day, it’s what you do after the draft. You’re going to have expectations no matter what. For myself being a high pick, I went into it knowing there would be the expectations so it was more worrying about what I needed to do to be the best player I could be and that’s what I tried to do.
Q: You have now played two NHL seasons. What was the jump from Year 1 to Year 2 like for you?
A: My first year it was almost like getting your feet wet – you’re not really sure what to expect. You have the expectations. You want to play well. That second year you come back and you’re more confident, you’re looking to make more of an impact on the team – in the locker room, on the ice – you’re just trying to do more and take on more responsibility.
Q: The Sabres are in transition with a new coach and general manager. What are your initial impressions of Phil Housley as the new coach?
A: Phil Housley is a Hall of Fame NHL-er. He’s got a great resume and I’ve heard nothing but great things. Just talking to him, it seems like he’s really focused. In hearing about what he wants to do to our team, how he wants to run things, I’m excited and I think it’s going to be great for all of us.