SUMMERLIN, Nev. — The gigantic mural splashed on the wall inside the Golden Knights’ practice facility is proof it wasn’t all a dream three months ago.
“Stanley Cup Champions 2023,” it reads.
“A good reminder every day coming into the building of what we accomplished,” Jack Eichel, one of the players on the mural holding the Cup above his head, said Monday as he sat down with The Athletic.
“But it’s an even better reminder of what went into winning that. Everyone has shifted their focus now toward this upcoming season.”
Eichel was on the ice again Monday with a number of his teammates as the players ramp up before camp officially opens next week.
It was a short summer. That’s the best kind when it means winning it all, but a short summer is nonetheless especially noteworthy for a guy like Eichel after his long road back from neck surgery two years ago.
“It feels good,” Eichel said of his body ahead of camp. “I think it was important to take some time off. Obviously, there’s the physical aspect of everything. But just mentally and emotionally, I think the run itself in the playoffs takes a lot out of you. So just being able to get away from it, relax, try to get your mind off hockey and try to reset, I think I did that for a bit.
“And yeah, then you get back into training and try to prepare and get your body right.”
Many Cup champions in the salary cap era have lost key components, making defending that title so difficult, all of which makes what the Penguins did in 2016 and ’17 and the Lightning in 2020 and ’21 that much more impressive.
And while losing a key leader in Reilly Smith, an original Golden Knight, was difficult, the Cup champions are bringing back most of their team. They’ve got the goods to defend their title.
“It’s a lot of the same faces,” Eichel said. “Losing Smithy is tough. There’s a few other guys who were here that we won’t have anymore, like LB (Laurent Brossoit), but like you said most of the guys are coming back and we really like our group. It’s rare that you can keep a team together. I remember talking to Smithy after he got traded and he alluded to that. It’s tough to keep teams together. … But we have a lot of the same guys coming back and some young, hungry guys that want to make an impact on the team.
“I like where we’re at.”
It’s time to turn the page on last season, but not before players had their day with the Cup this summer. For Eichel, the day was held in his hometown of North Chelmsford near Boston.
“An incredible day,” Eichel said. “I had the opportunity to receive the Cup in my hometown, at my parents’ house. … We brought it to the youth hockey rink where I learned to play hockey and we had so many fans and supporters and people in the community come by. That was really cool.
“Just being able to bring the Cup around some places in my hometown means something to me, and part of it is just to be able to share it with other people and seeing their reaction when they’re around the Stanley Cup.”
Jack Eichel, Stanley Cup champion — How he rewrote his story with a sensational postseason
The experience culminated with the Cup at his beach house with friends and family — “so many people who helped me in my journey,” he said.
Imagine if someone had whispered in Eichel’s ear two years ago, during his lowest of the lows while batting his neck injury and his exit saga out of Buffalo, that he would be hoisting a Cup in so little time.
From one extreme to another on a roller coaster of emotions in less than two years.
“It’s really hard to ever just imagine doing it,” Eichel said. “As a kid you let your mind wander and you dream about (winning the Cup). But it is such a hard thing to do. And I credit our team and the organization and having the opportunity to be part of it.
“We have so many special guys and players and people who are part of this organization that made that dream a reality. Of course I would have taken that.”
“Looking back on everything that’s happened, I wouldn’t say I would change anything because here I am. It’s the happiest I’ve been in a long time. I have the chance to be part of this amazing organization and fulfill a lifelong dream last season. I get my health back and I’m enjoying playing hockey again and I enjoy coming to the rink and being around these guys.”
There’s a maturation that’s happened here with Eichel. So much was thrust on him early after being taken second in the draft by Buffalo in 2015. The constant comparisons in his draft year to Connor McDavid, the captaincy at a young age with the Sabres, the big contract, the injury, and well, the losing. Lots of losing. That took a toll on Eichel. Maybe he didn’t always handle things as well as he could have.
Again, maturation. Live and learn.
And that maturity was front and center during the Cup Final in June when he diffused the situation after being crushed by Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk in Game 2, calling it a clean hit and not allowing the emotion of the moment to make it a bigger deal.
It was impressive to see.
“You know what? Honestly, what I said was the truth,” Eichel said. “I went back and watched the hit again, it wasn’t a dirty hit. It was a big collision for sure. But if you watch it, he doesn’t target my head; he hits his shoulder into my chest. What am I going to say about it? It’s a physical game. You’re going to get hit. Obviously, I wish I didn’t put myself in that position, but I didn’t find the need to make something out of nothing.
“The other part of it is that you don’t want to give the other team any bulletin board material. … I’m an emotional guy and there’s been times when I’ve probably said things through the media that I regret saying. But in that situation, it was a clean check. You take it and keep moving.”
And that’s just it: Eichel did keep moving after a brief exit from Game 2. Taking that hit and feeling no worse for wear given his history, that was the best part of it all. It’s as if Eichel was announcing to the world he was totally back.
“Everyone was worried about the neck there,” Eichel smiled. “I got the wind knocked out of me. I think that was the perfect example of the surgery working and going well. I know my surgeon was pretty happy. He wasn’t happy I got hit but was happy to see everything was fine after.”
Eichel was quick to add that he gives much credit to his chiropractor, Mark Lindsay, who worked with him throughout the playoffs.
“He was working overtime,” Eichel said. “Doing a lot to help me.”
Eichel led all playoff scorers with 26 points (six goals) in 22 games. The best may still be to come, though. This season could really be special as far as where his game has gotten back to.
“Being away from the game for a while like I was, it takes some time to get your feet under you … to get your confidence back,” Eichel said. “I was happy that the playoffs went well for our team and that I was able to find some personal success. Hopefully I’ll be able to build on that.”
Jack Eichel, Stanley Cup champion.
If that isn’t the ultimate middle finger to his harshest critics along the way, I don’t know what is.
And there were plenty of haters, which is natural when you force a trade. There were also nay-sayers second-guessing his decision to get a surgery that had never been done on an NHL player before.
So yeah, lifting that Cup on June 13 was vindication.
“If I were going to sit here and tell you it didn’t feel good to shut a lot of people up or prove them wrong, I’d be lying,” Eichel said. “It was a great opportunity for our team to do that. A lot of people wrote us off last year coming into the season having not made the playoffs the year before. And even going through the playoffs, it feels like everyone was kind of siding with every team we played against.
“We heard it as a group and we understood there wasn’t a whole lot of respect for our team. And we used it as fire and motivation.”
A brief pause, before Eichel summed it up.
“Having gone through some of the stuff and all the criticism and people attacking me and my character, I think it a was nice feeling to try and change that narrative,” he said.
That, Eichel certainly did.
(Top photo of Jack Eichel raising the Stanley Cup: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)