Jack Eichel relishes return to 'normal' in first skate with Vegas Golden Knights, laments NHL's 'frustrating' Olympics decision

Jack Eichel said he was like a kid on Christmas morning during his first skate with the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday.

"It's a bit of an emotional moment for me. Another step in the process," he said after practice. "I know it's only an optional morning skate. But after everything that I've been through, things are getting back to normal."

Eichel's last game was with the Buffalo Sabres on March 7, 2021, before he was shut down with a herniated disk in his neck. After months of contentious debate with the Sabres about what kind of surgery he should have, Eichel's trade request was granted. He was sent to the Golden Knights in November in exchange for forwards Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs and two conditional picks.

Vegas immediately announced that Eichel would have artificial disk replacement surgery, a procedure the Sabres wouldn't allow him to undergo, as it hadn't been performed on an active NHL player before. Buffalo had the final say on treatment, per the NHL collective bargaining agreement. But Eichel steadfastly believed, based on his research and the medical advice he'd been given, that disk replacement surgery was the better option for recovery now and comfort later in life.

"I was sitting here and I was pinching myself a few times during the rehab process, just being like, 'I went through all that, for this?' It's pretty straightforward," Eichel described. "I had surgery. I went out to dinner with my parents that night. It was a lot more straightforward than I had expected. To be completely honest, it was a really smooth process. ... I'm very proud that I stood up for what I believed in. At the end of the day, it all panned out like I hoped it would."

Chicago Blackhawks center Tyler Johnson has since undergone the same surgery. Eichel said they spoke seven to 10 days after his own procedure, during which he shared his experience with Johnson.

"If you want to call me a pioneer, with another player getting what could be a beneficial procedure for them, so be it," Eichel said Tuesday. "But it was really good to see him get that done and that he's doing well."

Eichel had been rehabbing from his Nov. 12, 2021, surgery in North Carolina before heading to Las Vegas to rejoin the Golden Knights. He had seen his teammates only briefly when the team introduced him after the trade.

"We're excited to get him back. It's a breath of fresh air to see him skating again," said forward Mark Stone, who said the center would likely join full practices later in the week.

Eichel wore a red noncontact jersey Tuesday and will do so "for a while," according to Vegas coach Pete DeBoer, who offered no timetable for his return to play.

"It's nice to have him in the room. Nice to see him. You want to temper your enthusiasm because this is just the first step in a long return-to-play road," DeBoer said. "That gives your team a boost. They see that the end of the road is on the horizon."

Does Eichel have a target date?

"I was actually thinking about suiting up tonight, but they wouldn't let me go," he joked, hours before the Knights were scheduled to face the Toronto Maple Leafs in Vegas. "I wouldn't say there's really a target date at this point. I think I'll know medically and physically and emotionally when I'm ready to go. The team and the organization have been so supportive and aren't putting a hard date on when I'm expected to be back."

Eichel said the next steps in his comeback are to make sure that his conditioning is strong, that his timing is back and that he feels as good physically as he can to play his game. That comes with practice time and more reps.

Based on the initial post-surgery timeline, it's expected Eichel could play for the Knights in February. That's when the NHL was expected to shut down its season for the Winter Olympics break, but the league scuttled that plan after well over a hundred games were postponed due to COVID-19 outbreaks at the end of 2021 and into January.

"I think, like a lot of players, I was very frustrated. I'm not saying that I would have been back and healthy and playing in the Olympics -- but I'm also not saying that I wouldn't have been," Eichel said. "Every young kid's dream is to represent their country. I'm definitely frustrated with the decision. I understand where the world's at with COVID, and I understand some of the hoops that needed to be jumped through for all of this to work out.

"But this was one of the things that we negotiated in our last CBA. For our league to shut us out of this opportunity ... for me it's a bit frustrating. I'm not too happy with the outcome. I've seen a lot of guys voice their opinion, and rightfully so, and I agree with all of them."

While he's disappointed to not join Team USA, he's thrilled to be with his new teammates in Vegas.

"To have that taken from you, you start to realize how much it means, that camaraderie," he said. "It's nice to be back here. I've had a smile on my face all day."