• Villanova Sports Law Blog

Eichel's Body, Sabres' Choice: The Disagreement Continues in Buffalo

Updated: Oct 27, 2021

By: Andy Lee, Guest Contributor


[1]As exciting as it has been for Buffalo sports fans watching their Bills succeed, it has been equally disappointing for them watching the Sabres struggle. Most recently, the Sabres announced that they stripped franchise player Jack Eichel of his captaincy and placed him on injured reserve after he failed his physical at training camp.[2] Eichel was drafted by the Sabres in 2015, with the second overall pick.[3] In 2017, they re-signed him to an 8-year, $80 million contract, making him the highest-paid player in franchise history.[4] However, he has been injured since March of last season with a herniated disc in his neck.[5]

There has been a considerable amount of controversy concerning Eichel’s recovery. Eichel, who preferred to get surgery last season, was overruled by the Sabres medical staff and forced to rehab the injury for 12 weeks.[6] The Sabres believed the more conservative approach would ensure their star forward was healthy for the start of the upcoming season. To their dismay, rehab did not work.[7]

Now, both sides agree that surgery is inevitable.[8] One question remains: what surgery will he receive? The Sabres are pressuring Eichel to get an anterior cervical discectomy with fusion.[9] This is a common surgery for this type of injury.[10] It is understandable that Sabres Management would not want to risk their greatest asset receiving any other surgery.


Since he sustained the injury, the soon-to-be 25-year-old has pushed for artificial disk replacement, which has been a treatment option for approximately 20 years, but has never been performed on an NHL player.[11] Under Attachment C of Section 34 in the NHL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which was ratified on July 10, 2020 and is effective through the 2025-26 season, Eichel had the right to get a second opinion.[12] The specific language says that an injured player may “seek a second medical opinion regarding a diagnosis made by a team physician or a course of treatment (including the timing thereof) prescribed by a team physician…from a list of medical specialists with outstanding reputations and experience in their area of expertise...”[13]


Eichel’s doctors argue that the artificial disk replacement will get him back on the ice quicker than the fusion surgery and is also better for him in years to come.[14] However, although Eichel is entitled to a second opinion, the CBA gives the Sabres the final decision and they have held firm on their stance in favor of fusion surgery.[15]


The Eichel controversy has sparked debate across the NHL on whether players should have the right to make their own decisions regarding their bodies. One player actively vocalizing his opinion is former Sabre Robin Lehner, who wrote on Twitter, “Where is the NHLPA and all NHL players in all [these] attacks on our freedom of choice? [Jack’s] situation is crazy to me… #lifeaftercareer.”[16] He further tweeted, “NHL is it good to keep a generational player out of the league? His body his choice.”[17]


In response to the criticism, Commissioner Gary Bettman stated, “There's a legitimate disagreement among doctors as to what the course of treatment would be best, both in the short-term and long-term and that's something everybody's wrestling with … I don't think it's fair to point the finger at anybody in terms of who's right and wrong… everybody's approaching this with the best intentions and that injury is complex both in its diagnosis and its treatment … people need to be a little more patient."[18]


However, do people need to be more patient? Many presumed that Eichel would have been traded in July, at the start of NHL free agency. In August, hoping to make some progress, he fired his long-time agent, Pat Fish.[19] Eichel replaced Fish with well-known agent Pat Brisson, who has represented other NHL superstars such as Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane.[20] Whether it be due to his injury status or what the Sabres are asking for in return, Eichel remains a Sabre. His no-move clause does not activate until next summer, so the Sabres can still trade him to any NHL team.[21] For now, the Sabres have not elected to suspend Eichel without pay for refusing their surgery recommendation, but Sabres General Manager Kevyn Adams says he has not ruled out the possibility of doing so if there is no progress moving forward.[22]


Either way, Eichel is now going to miss the better part of two NHL seasons, and that’s thanks, at least in part, to his inability to make his own medical decisions. Furthermore, Eichel’s hopes of representing Team USA at the 2022 Olympics in February are also diminishing rapidly as this battle continues to drag on.[23] As of now, both parties remain gridlocked and neither shows any signs of backing down. For Eichel to play, one side is going to have to give.




References:

[1] Photo: Hoppe, A. B. (2021, August 1). Doctor makes case for Sabres' Jack Eichel having disc replacement surgery. Buffalo Hockey Beat. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.buffalohockeybeat.com/doctor-makes-case-for-sabres-jack-eichel-having-disc-replacement-surgery/.

[2] Wyshynski, G. (2021, September 23). Buffalo Sabres Center Jack Eichel fails physical, stripped of captaincy. ESPN. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.espn.com/nhl/story/_/id/32262693/buffalo-sabres-center-jack-eichel-fails-physical-stripped-captaincy.

[3] NHL.com. (2017, October 3). Eichel agrees to 8-year, $80M contract extension with Sabres. NHL.com. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.nhl.com/news/sabres-eichel-agrees-to-eight-year-80-million-contract-extension/c-291553136.

[4] Id.

[5] Wyshynski, supra.

[6] The Athletic Staff (2021, May 12). Sabres GM: Jack Eichel wants surgery never performed on NHL player. The Athletic. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://theathletic.com/news/sabres-gm-jack-eichel-wants-surgery-never-performed-on-nhl-player/yhEapcsmhyZX.

[7] The Athletic Staff. (2021, September 23). Sabres' Jack Eichel no longer Buffalo's captain, needs surgery: GM Kevyn Adams. The Athletic. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://theathletic.com/news/sabres-jack-eichel-no-longer-buffalos-captain-needs-surgery-gm-kevyn-adams/qlBOIKwbt65b.

[8] Id.

[9] Id.

[10] Harrington, M. (2021, July 31). Jack Eichel's doctor: Disk replacement surgery better for him now and later in life. The Buffalo News. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://buffalonews.com/sports/sabres/jack-eichels-doctor-disk-replacement-surgery-better-for-him-now-and-later-in-life/article_7111c3c6-f20e-11eb-833c-673965d0db8f.html.

[11] Id.

[12] Collective bargaining agreement. The PA | NHLPA.com. (n.d.). Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.nhlpa.com/the-pa/cba.

[13] Id.

[14] Harrington, supra.

[15] Id.

[16] Shanna McCarriston (2021, October 4). Robin Lehner, Golden Knights goaltender, to meet with NHL officials over medical malpractice accusations. CBSSports.com. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.cbssports.com/nhl/news/robin-lehner-golden-knights-goaltender-to-meet-with-nhl-officials-over-medical-malpractice-accusations/.

[17] Id.

[18] Gary Bettman speaks on Robin Lehner tweets, Jack Eichel situation. Sportsnet. (2021, October 4). Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.sportsnet.ca/nhl/article/gary-bettman-speaks-robin-lehner-tweets-jack-eichel-situation?template=basic.

[19] Hoppe, A. B. (2021, August 27). Reports: Sabres captain Jack Eichel fires longtime agent, hires Pat Brisson. Buffalo Hockey Beat. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.buffalohockeybeat.com/reports-sabres-captain-jack-eichel-fires-longtime-agent-hires-pat-brisson/.

[20] Id.

[21] Why the time for the Sabres to trade Jack Eichel is now. Sportsnet. (2021, May 10). Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://www.sportsnet.ca/nhl/article/time-sabres-trade-jack-eichel-now/.

[22] Jack Eichel 'no longer the captain' of the buffalo sabres, placed on ir. Sportsnet. (2021, September 23). Retrieved October 13, 2021, from https://www.sportsnet.ca/nhl/article/jack-eichel-no-longer-captain-buffalo-sabres-placed-ir/.

[23] Leahy, S. (2021, September 3). Projecting the 2022 U.S. olympic men's hockey roster. NBC Sports. Retrieved October 11, 2021, from https://nhl.nbcsports.com/2021/09/03/projecting-the-2022-u-s-olympic-mens-hockey-roster/.