MONTREAL — A half-dozen or so American players were chatting with small groups of reporters, talking about how great the world junior hockey championship was and how excited they were to be playing Canada in the preliminary round finale on New Year’s Eve.
Reporters were dutifully taking notes, recording the session, nodding, everyone was being polite.
Then Jack Eichel walked in and every other scrum ended. Every reporter walked over to Eichel. No one said thank you, or goodbye. The smiles on Eichel’s American teammates as they walked away said it all. They knew this was coming: It’s time for Mac vs. Jack.
When Canada plays the U.S. for first place in Group A on Wednesday, the much-hyped game will have draft implications when Connor McDavid faces off against Eichel.
Two can’t-miss franchise players going head-to-head in a rivalry game.
Think about when Team Canada and Nathan MacKinnon played Team USA and Seth Jones two years ago in Ufa, Russia. Then multiply it exponentially.
The microscope will be on both players, every play analyzed, every mistake logged and the debate about whether Eichel can supplant McDavid as this year’s top prospect will continue.
“It’s big hype, those two going head to head,” said McDavid linemate Jake Virtanen. “I’m looking forward to see how they do against each other. I know Connor will do great.”
The Americans say the same of Eichel.
“I’ve known Jack a long time. He’s the type of player who steps up at big times,” said American defenceman Noah Hanifin.
Even though McDavid and Eichel played each other last year in Sweden, both were in lesser roles but now each is a leader. McDavid is an alternate captain, the first 17 year old to wear an A for Canada since Sidney Crosby. Eichel, meanwhile, is captain of the American team.
So what separates these two? Well, Eichel speaks louder, both pay homage to each other and both say their focus is on the team.
Eichel is bigger, with broad shoulders and looks as if his body has already filled out. He is a power forward with unique playmaking ability and whoever is drafting second will love him on their roster.
The wiry McDavid is the more dynamic player, more Crosby-like. It’s as if he knows where the play is going and teleports there before anyone else can get there. His only problem — and it’s only temporary — is that he may not be back to where he was seven weeks ago when he broke his hand in an ill-fated fight.
When the time came for the two to talk — Eichel spoke while Team Canada was out on the ice — they both said the right things about Montreal, about the tournament, about each other.
In fact, McDavid stood in roughly the same spot where Eichel had answered questions saying roughly the same words an hour later.
They were each asked to assess their own play.
“All right,” said McDavid, who stopped there.
Then he was asked if he feels he’s back to where he was before the hand injury.
“I guess,” the Erie Otters captain replied.
Eichel was only a slightly more forthcoming.
“I think I’ve played pretty well so far, I’m happy. Our team is 3-0. I can’t complain. As long as we keep winning, I’ll be happy.”
As for playing each other, well, it’s like they had the same scriptwriter.
“It’s Canada versus the States, it’s not me versus him,” said McDavid. “It’s a big game for both teams.”
Said Eichel: “It’s not at all about me and Connor. It’s a huge matchup for the top-seed in the bracket. It’s Canada vs. the U.S.”
You could tell they just wanted to get the scrums over with, that they were tired of the Mac vs. Jack hype.
It was Canadian captain Curtis Lazar who summed it up beautifully.
“They’re both kids, I’m a kid,” said Lazar. “We’re just out here playing the game we love. In the end, one game, one tournament is not going to determine their future. They’re both going to have long NHL careers.
“They’re both special players for a reason.”