Vegas’ Eichel back on ice for first time since neck surgery

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Jack Eichel finally skated with the Vegas Golden Knights for the first time since being acquired from Buffalo and becoming the first NHL player to undergo artificial disk replacement surgery on his neck in November.

“A bit of an emotional moment for me,” Eichel said Tuesday after Vegas’ morning skate. “Just another step in the process. This was like a kid at Christmas getting out there with the guys.”

Eichel said it didn’t matter his new teammates were preparing for their game against the Toronto Maple Leafs while he wore a non-contact jersey as he skated around the team’s practice facility. He felt like he was part of a hockey team again.

“With everything I’ve been through, it’s like things are getting back to normal for me, which is what I’ve wanted all along,” said Eichel, who rehabbed in Charlotte, North Carolina, before rejoining the Golden Knights on Tuesday. “You really feel like you’re part of the group.”

That is an important part of his process, both mentally and physically, as he can learn from a group that has long been known for its locker room camaraderie.

Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said it’ll take some time — “a while” — before the 25-year-old All-Star center will be able to endure contact. Eichel said he has no target date.

“I think it’s see how you feel, see how you progress, how confident and comfortable you are,” Eichel said. “I think I’ll know physically, mentally, emotionally when I’ll be ready to go. The team and the organization has been so supportive not putting a hard date of when I need to be back or when they expect me to be back.

“Just very low pressure. You have different milestones you want to meet during this process.”

Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon said after the trade he expected the recovery process to last three to five months. He had the surgery on Nov. 12.

Eichel wasn’t the only one elated about his presence at City National Arena, as team captain Mark Stone said it was exciting to add “a top-10 player in the league into our lineup at some point.”

“Obviously we’re not sure when that’s going to be,” Stone added. “We’re excited to have him just around the team. It’ll be exciting to see his skill set for the next little bit of practice here and building up to his first game.”

Vegas, the fifth-highest scoring team in the league with 3.47 goals per game, is in first place in the Pacific Division, two points in front of Anaheim with 47 points.

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