They came to Buffalo hoping to stand out on the ice, but when it came to standing in front of a room full of strangers, most of the 42 players taking part in the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game looked like they would rather take a slapshot to the forehead than partake in any form of public speaking.
Yet there they were, one by one, walking up to the podium to introduce themselves to a room full of hockey dignitaries and tell a little bit about their budding hockey careers as if they were sharing the most personal details of their young adult lives.
And with a burst of quickness normally displayed on the ice, they bolted off the dais to rejoin their teammates in the anonymity of the group.
That included Jack Eichel, the poster boy of this year’s event. Only days after the NHL Central Scouting Service anointed the North Chelmsford, Massachusetts, native as a potential top pick in next summer’s NHL Entry Draft in Sunrise, Florida, the affable Eichel had already been pressed into public relations duty to generate interest for what has become one of the preeminent hockey showcases on the calendar.
It’s not the first time that all eyes have been on Eichel. After two seasons with USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, he is already being compared with other notable alums, including Patrick Kane and Phil Kessel.
“I just try to concentrate on what I can control and myself,” said Eichel. “I just try to focus on myself and making sure I’m doing the right things and trying to get better.”
The reality is that while Eichel has proven to be the real deal, this event features a number of players who rate high on the wish lists of the NHL scouts who will be on hand Thursday night at the First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York.
“This game is all about celebrating the American player,” said Jim Johannson, the assistant executive director of hockey operations for USA Hockey.
It’s a celebration that has been a long time coming, as far as USA Hockey greats Eddie Olczyk and Mike Grier can attest. Long after their playing days were behind them, both remain involved in the game, Olczyk as a television analyst and Grier as a pee wee coach in Massachusetts.
And while both took different paths to make it to the NHL, both had similar words of advice for the players participating in this year’s game.
“Don’t be in a hurry,” said Olczyk, who was destined for stardom after skating with the 1984 U.S. Olympic Team as a 17-year-old. “That’s the one piece of advice I can give you. Let things happen and you’ll do great things.”
For his part, Grier touted his four years at Boston University as the best route to an NHL career that would last more than 1,000 games.
“Enjoy the process,” said Grier, who played parts of four seasons with the Sabres. “Everyone is going to take a different path to the NHL; the key is to take your time and enjoy the ride.”
When it comes to coaching in this game, time is not a luxury either coach will have. Each team will hit the ice early Thursday for what will amount to an abbreviated morning skate before the puck drops at 7:10 p.m. eastern time on the NHL Network.
With so little time, each coach plans on employing a simple strategy that they hope will ensure success.
“My advice to you is, if you think it’s right, do it,” Olczyk said to both teams.
While Eichel has garnered much of the pregame attention, Buffalo’s own Joe Cecconi will have plenty of supporters in the crowd.
“We have a lot of people planning on being here tomorrow night. I think we have about 15 family members, 25 friends and a bunch of people from the Buffalo Jr. Sabres,” said Cecconi, a defenseman with the Muskegon Lumberjacks of the United States Hockey League.
“It should be a fast-paced game with a lot of speed and a lot of skill. It will be a fun game to play in and a really fun game to watch.”