Jack Eichel continues to be the source of smiles and hope for those in dire need of both at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in downtown Buffalo, even when he can’t be there in person.
As patients make their way down one of the facility’s busier hallways to get their blood tested, they pass a large charcoal portrait of the Buffalo Sabres captain hanging on the wall. For doctors and other staff, watching people’s faces light up when they catch a glimpse of his image is priceless.
“When they walk by it to get their blood drawn, they’ll look over and say ‘Wow, that’s really cool,'” Roswell Park physician Dr. Philip McCarthy said. “I mean, these people are fighting to get control of their lives back. And to see their reaction when they see it, it gets their spirits up.
“Obviously he can’t be here in person as much as he’s been in the past because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But he’s still having an impact on these people in so many ways, whether it’s when they see his portrait or in other ways too.
“They know, like we do, that he’s here in spirit with his support. Always. Even in these uncertain times.”
November is the official Hockey Fights Cancer Month but for Eichel it’s a 12-month-a-year effort.
Eichel has enjoyed a special relationship with Roswell Park since he first arrived in Buffalo after the Sabres selected him with the No. 2 pick in the 2015 NHL Draft, whether it be personal visits or hosting patients at home games at KeyBank Center. His portrait at the hospital, which was done by Michelle Eisenstein, staff member of Roswell Park marketing department and member of the art committee, serves as a reminder of how much he means to Roswell Park, and how much it means to him.
“It’s a terrible disease and, more than anything, you wouldn’t want anything like that to happen to anyone,” Eichel said, his voice cracking with emotion during a recent interview. “You want to make an impact any way you can.
“The people at Roswell are unwavering in their efforts. And there is nothing better than seeing a kid ring the bell signifying that he is cancer free after watching them struggle. You want to be part of that.”
The restrictions related to the pandemic have made in-person meetings with patients more difficult. But that hasn’t stopped him from looking for ways to help.
According to Dr. Candace Johnson, president and CEO of Roswell Park, Eichel was instrumental in helping secure protective face shields for staff early in the pandemic.
“He personally supported purchasing them for our frontline workers, because he knew this was at a time when these things were very difficult to get,” Dr. Johnson said. “He did it, like he’s done for us so many times over the years, because he wants to do it, not because he feels an obligation to do it.
“He is a special person, and I feel fortunate about the relationship he has formed with us.”
Founded in 1898, Roswell Park was the first dedicated medical facility for cancer treatment and research in the United States. In 2020 it ranked No. 14 on U.S. News & World Report’s list of the best cancer hospitals in the country.
Like so many other hospitals around the world, Roswell Park was put to the test when COVID-19 numbers alarmingly spiked starting in March. While equipment levels were running low, so, too, were the spirits of staff members
With one heartfelt gesture, Eichel attempted to alleviate that.
On May 6, Eichel donated 250 bouquets of flowers to nurses at Roswell Park in celebration of National Nurses Day and National Nurses Week. Each bouquet came with a personalized message.
“From the moment I first arrived in Buffalo, I was welcomed by the Roswell Park family with open arms,” the note said. “Seeing the compassionate, life-saving care you provide has been really inspirational for me. Growing up with a mom who is also a nurse, I know how emotionally dedicated you all are, and I want to thank you for all you do and the sacrifices you make.”
Eichel’s mom, Anne, is a nurse at Boston Medical Center.
“That was amazing,” Dr. Johnson said. “It also shows his sincerity. His mindset is: ‘Whatever it takes.'”
Roswell Park posted a video of appreciative nurses, wearing fatigued grins, thanking the Sabres forward for his generosity.
“With everything healthcare workers have been facing through the whole COVID-19 pandemic it’s been it’s been tough on them and their families, so I was just trying to do something to put a smile on their face and bring a little joy to their day,” Eichel said. “It was a simple thing and obviously made a lot of people’s days and brought a lot of happiness and joy to them.
“We can’t thank them enough for all their hard work and dedication. It’s incredible what they do. I saw it firsthand with my mom and her dedication. Then just being at Roswell and meeting some of the nurses there and then getting to know them, they’re just amazing people.”
Dr. McCarthy said the staff and patients at Roswell Park feel the same way about Eichel.
“Here’s another example of what he does,” Dr. McCarthy said. “There is a place in Buffalo called Kevin Guest House. It was established for families who have members being treated at Roswell. Before that, you’d have people sleeping in their cars. Now they have a place to stay. And I can’t tell you how many meals Jack has purchased for those people.
“That’s Jack. He doesn’t want fanfare for it. It’s just what he does.”
Over the years Eichel’s person-to-person relationships have brought snippets of happiness to those fighting cancer.
Even for those who tragically don’t make it.
In December 2017, Eichel and teammate Sam Reinhart went to the town of Williamsville, just outside of Buffalo, to surprise Sebastien Bradley, a 9-year-old who had brain cancer. When the boy subsequently went for treatments at Roswell Park, Eichel made sure to go see him.
Sebastien passed away on May 18, 2018.
“I was there when he visited this child in the hospital,” Dr. Johnson said. “If you would have seen the smile on that child’s face when Jack sat down on the bed, it meant everything to the child.
“It’s hard to see kids struggling and not doing well. It’s not easy to go in there with a smile on your face. But Jack does what he does. And he really did develop a really warm relationship with this little boy. To see what it meant to this child was really special.”
Eichel said it was an emotional time.
“I think they had an idea that things were not looking too good for him,” he said. “But in a situation like that, it kind of hits the point on the head that it’s more or less just to try and make his time as great as it can be. And just to try and put as much as much joy in his life as possible.
“The thing is, these kids give me joy too. You never want to see one lose their battle. But at least you can try to give them a bit of happiness. And the ones who make it, you are so happy for them. They go through things at a young age most of us never have to.
“The Sabres have a great relationship with Roswell. And I’m glad I do too.”
One of the most highly anticipated events at Roswell Park is the Sabres annual team Christmas visit. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, that likely won’t happen this year.
But that won’t keep patients from being reminded of how much Eichel cares.
“They’ll see his picture in the hallway and smile,” Dr. McCarthy said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Photos courtesy of Roswell Park and Buffalo Sabres