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Jack Eichel learning life in the spotlight

AP Photo/Elise Amendola

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Wide right. Foot in the crease.

Buffalo sports fans know suffering.

And for the past two years, Buffalo sports fans have endured a level of losing by their beloved Sabres that has been almost admirable in its execution.

If God hates Cleveland, he's at least a little miffed at Buffalo.

"The fans of Buffalo are desperate for a winner," said former Sabre and current team analyst Brad May. "Sabres fans have suffered enough."

That's the backdrop into which Jack Eichel is entering.

On June 26, the Buffalo Sabres franchise will be forever altered. If all goes as planned, Sabres general manager Tim Murray will walk to the podium in Sunrise, Florida, and announce the name of the Boston University freshman whose arrival Buffalo fans have been patiently awaiting for the past two seasons.

It will be the moment that signals the end of the suffering. It's the end of the tearing down and the beginning of the building back up.

On the shoulders of a college kid rests the hopes of an entire franchise, perhaps a city. And if the past few weeks have shown us anything, it's that he's just about ready for it.

As a college freshman, BU coach David Quinn was able to protect him. When there was a social media slipup and a trip to hockey-crazed Montreal for the World Junior Championship, Quinn was able to shut things down media-wise for a while.

Even then, the 6-2, 198-pound Eichel got a taste of what was coming.

"I don't know if anyone in the history of college hockey has come under the spotlight and microscope Jack had," Quinn told ESPN.com. "I knew it was going to be different, but it took on a life of its own."

So Quinn shut it down. He kept Eichel out of the spotlight.

Eichel, a righthanded center, followed his college hockey season by disappearing to the Czech Republic, where he was just another kid on a USA Hockey team with veteran NHL players trying to upset their way to a medal in the world championship. They did just that, winning a bronze medal.

Then came the boost that pushed him into the hockey spotlight.

The NHL's draft combine was held -- for the first time, serendipitously -- in Buffalo. It meant he was stopped in the street by Sabres fans and was approached at dinner, getting a taste of what was coming.

He had a team interview with Buffalo in the Sabres conference room, which was packed in part because it was being held on home soil.

"We had a lot of people in the room. It was pretty intimidating," new Sabres coach Dan Bylsma told ESPN.com. "Jack handled the questions in the room with confidence."

Eichel did a media availability at the combine that fellow prospect Connor McDavid called the biggest he'd ever been in at this point in his career when he finished talking to the same group.

Then came a trip to Chicago for the Stanley Cup finals. More interviews. More crowds. A meeting with contest winners. Dinner at the same Chicago steakhouse where the Tampa Bay Lightning coaching staff and a few Blackhawks players were eating. An interview televised across Canada with Don Cherry.

Through it all, he maintained the same composure Buffalo fans will get to know well. On camera, he carries himself with a confidence that comes with being one of the best young players in the world, mixed with just enough modesty that doesn't betray the fine work of his parents: Bob, a sales rep, and Anne, a nurse.

Occasional glimpses show he's got a bit of an edge. Like when Murray shared with Buffalo radio station WGR that Eichel told him in the draft interview he expected to be better than McDavid.

When asked about those comments, Eichel, 18, replied that he thought they were made in confidence.

There are also glimpses of a sense of humor. Like when he handed proud Canadian Cherry a USA Hockey shirt -- an idea he got from his dad. Or when Eichel good-naturedly teased the cameraman following him around for wearing athletic shoes with his suit.

He's learning how to handle the attention on the fly, and it hasn't always been easy. On a quiet May afternoon in Ostrava, Czech Republic, Eichel is sitting in an eating area of the Team USA hotel.

In this moment, he's far enough away from the whirlwind to appreciate just how crushing it can be at times. It's not just the media attention; it's the expectation that comes with being the savior of a franchise.

It's the expectation of being the next great American hockey player.

"People have so many expectations of me. I have expectations on myself," he told ESPN.com. "It's human nature that you want to maybe do too much. It's definitely a long mental grind. It seems like people are always asking you to do something. It's just a lot."

And then he paused.

"Mentally, I think it wears you down," he said.

His coach in the world championship -- and probably in Buffalo -- has seen it all before. As Sidney Crosby's former coach, Byslma has firsthand experience of what life is like for the face of a team and, at times, an entire country. He's seen how one innocuous comment can become a story. He's surely been asked "What's it like to coach Sidney Crosby?" more often than any other question.

"The eyes of pretty much everybody -- whether it's the young kids in the stands, the TV camera, the media -- are on you," Bylsma said. "If Sid changes expressions, the camera has it. If Craig Adams changes expressions, nobody knows. We criticize and analyze the expression. Jack has already got that."

And it's only going to get more intense.

"I can relate to the situation he's going to be in," Bylsma said. "Day 1 of training camp, all eyes are going to be on him. How much he plays, how much he practices, who he's practicing with, what number he has -- everything is going to be a point of discussion somewhere."

The advantage of having Sid's old coach is that Eichel has someone experienced in handling and managing the mania. He's also a coach who knows exactly what it takes for a franchise center to succeed at the highest level.

In the Czech Republic as an assistant coach with Team USA, Bylsma got an in-depth look at the player he'll soon be charged with turning into an NHL star. It wasn't the first time he'd seen Eichel up close. He saw him in the All-American prospect game in September and in the world junior championship. But in the Czech Republic, Bylsma spent 23 straight days with Eichel.

What struck Bylsma most about him was the way everybody's eyes are drawn to Eichel on the ice.

"You want to see what he's doing," Bylsma said.

While together, they sat down and watched tape. Eichel already has all the raw tools, but there's work to be done, especially when he doesn't have the puck, for him to succeed in the NHL.

The two watched clips of how successful centers play without the puck, especially in transition and in the neutral zone, with a focus on using speed to support the puck.

Naturally, there were a lot of clips of Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the two centers Bylsma won with in Pittsburgh.

"He can skate like the wind. If he doesn't use it away from the puck, he's not using what he has," Bylsma said.

Aside from the skill set -- the strength that defies his age, the strong skating, the shot -- Bylsma saw a kid who made an effort to fit in with teammates. An important distinction for a future superstar.

"He wants to be one of the group," Bylsma said.

It's when he's with that group, on and off the ice, that he can escape the crushing expectations that come with being Jack Eichel.

On one rare off day during the world championship, he teamed up with American teammate Jeremy Morin to take on Jake Gardiner and Mike Reilly in a scramble at the beautiful Prosper Golf resort just outside the small Czech village of Celadna. With the peaks of the Beskydy Mountains as the backdrop, Eichel and Morin held their own for 18 holes, sending the scramble into a two-hole playoff. Then, the wheels fell off for Eichel.

"I fell apart in the final two holes," he said, smiling as he listed the excuses. He was tired. He had a sunburn. It had been a long day.

Ultimately, it was his short game that did him in.

"He was good most of the day," said Gardiner, a gracious winner.

It was a chance for a current NHL player like Gardiner to get an even closer look at one of the league's next superstars.

"He's a pretty easygoing guy. He seems pretty mature for his age," Gardiner said. "He's been through one year of college already, it helped him out. I went to college and didn't really know what to expect. You can tell he's grown up a little bit in that sense."

That one year of college was not without its hiccups.

Eichel learned the dangers of social media when a Snapchat video of his went viral. In the video, Eichel turns to the camera and says, "Buffalo -- I'm coming for ya." He then proceeds to down a beer. Another video captured him drinking from the Beanpot trophy.

Harmless stuff for a college freshman. Headline news when you're Jack Eichel.

Immediately, the first video was interpreted as a message to Buffalo fans and the Sabres, who expected to land the No. 1 overall pick, from a kid anticipating being the first selection in the draft.

Like the rest of the world, Quinn saw the videos. Quinn said he was amused by it and then asked his star freshman for an explanation.

The one he got was much different from the public perception. The video was taken in September, before the top prospect games, Quinn said. Eichel was hanging out with some teammates and players from the women's hockey team, and one of them was from Buffalo.

"She said, 'Say something for Buffalo,'" Quinn recounted. "It had nothing to do with the draft."

This isn't some revisionist history?

"That's 100 percent. That's gospel," Quinn said.

Either way, it became a lesson. Coach and player sat down and talked about how much more aware Eichel has to be socially and with social media; everything is being recorded, even if he thinks it's a video that will be immediately deleted.

"He's a respectful kid," Quinn said. "But he's 18."

He's 18 years old and learning.

Even in the midst of the craziness, he's able to have quiet moments that might end up being memorable.

On a street near the HarborCenter in Buffalo during the week of the combine, Eichel and McDavid met for the first time.

They'd competed against each other for years. They'd been compared innumerable times. They're going to be linked for the rest of their careers.

Until that moment, they'd never met.

There were no cameras. Nobody documenting the exact conversation. Just the future of the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres -- perhaps the entire NHL -- shaking hands as a couple of teenagers.

"We both felt it was better that way," McDavid told ESPN.com. "Nothing around, a little more personal. It kind of just happened."

Really, it was perfect. A chance meeting on the streets of Buffalo, the city Eichel will soon be captivating.