It is arguable that not since LeBron James graduated high school in 2003 and then immediately took the NBA by storm, that no young American athlete has emerged on the sports scene with the potential to do the same in a major sport than Boston University freshman phenom Jack Eichel of North Chelmsford.
Coaches have described Eichel’s “Larry Bird awareness” on the ice.
Eichel, who didn’t turn 18 until Oct. 28 and therefore was ineligible for the NHL draft in June, has led a resurgence by BU (11-3-2, 7-1-2 Hockey East) to the top ranking in the country.
Terriers coach David Quinn promised in preseason that there would be a “wow” factor when Eichel brought his prodigious talents to the college game. Quinn said he is amazed at how well the youngster has handled the James-like notoriety.
“Well, from our perspective, the way he has handled all the attention and possible distractions has been nothing short of unbelievable,” said Quinn, well aware that 65 professional scouts turned up when BU hosted Michigan for a recent game. “He is the most scrutinized college hockey player ever. He’s a special player. His upside is as big as he wants to make it because of all that God-given talent and his elite competitive side. He’s a great kid, too. He’s enjoyable to have on this team, even away from the rink.”
The 6-foot-2, 194-pound center has eight goals and 19 assists and currently shares the national scoring lead at the Division I level with Bentley junior forward Andrew Gladiuk, while playing three fewer games. Eichel’s 1.69 points per game leads the nation.
“He’s a terrific player,” said retired BU coach Jack Parker, who recruited Eichel and was on hand at Walter Brown Arena on Wednesday for Day 2 of the three-day U.S. junior national team camp where Eichel is among 30 skaters vying for a spot on the 23-player roster for the Dec. 26-Jan. 5 world junior championship in Montreal and Toronto. “He has great awareness, what I refer to as ‘Larry Bird court awareness.’ He makes plays for everybody else. He makes plays for himself. He is never going to be Ricky Meagher because he won’t be a three-time All-American, but he might be a Keith Tkachuk and have a great freshman year and then go on to the NHL and have a great career there.”
Eichel is part of the U.S. National Junior Team that will scrimmage BU on Friday.
Eichel was named Hockey East Rookie of the Month for October and November. Want to bet on December?
Bob Crocker has been associated with the BU hockey program since the early 1950s, first as a player and then as the top assistant to coach Jack Kelley on the Terriers’ back-to-back NCAA championship teams of 1971-72. Now a scout with the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, Crocker said Eichel is special.
“I think he can play, right now, with certain clubs in the National Hockey League,” Crocker said. “He’s a big, strong kid. He’s a great playmaker. He has all the tools. You name it, he’s got it, and the best is yet to come.”
The term “freak” has been used in a positive fashion by a variety of hockey people trying to sum up Eichel’s innate and exorbitant talent.
Mike Eruzione, the former Terrier who was the captain and hero of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic team, was on hand at his alma mater to address the players at the juniors camp.
“Unfortunately, we’re probably only going to have him for six months so it’s hard to rank him with the Chris Drury[s] that played four years,” Eruzione said of Eichel. “But, he’s a special player. Sometimes, I’m like Jack [Parker]. I don’t like to put one player ahead of another because I think BU is about ‘team,’ but when you have a special player like that it’s hard not recognize him. He could be one of the greatest, but Keith Tkachuk was good, Tony Amonte was good, Rick Meagher was good. We’ve had our share of great players. He may be just a notch above that, at the age he is at. . . . Right now, he is the face of hockey in this country and it’s good to see a local kid being the face of hockey, too.”
For now, the polite, soft-spoken Eichel is content to let the hoopla roll off his back.
“I’m been looking forward to this [world juniors] event for a couple of months. You’re always going to have a target [on your back]. I try not to think too much about it,” Eichel said. “It’s not about me at all. It’s about Team USA. That’s our motto. It’s about USA. I had two finals [examinations], finished up [the] school [semester], so all my focus transitions to helping the U.S. team. It’s going to be fun.”
— Elizabeth Thomas (@ethomas57) December 19, 2014