Jack Eichel’s neck surgery is no problem for the
Golden Knights

But when might he return? A surgeon helps explain.

By Jesse Granger for The Athletic


OTTAWA, Ontario – Golden Knights general manager Kelly McCrimmon proudly announced his acquisition of star center JackEichel at a press conference inside the Canadian Tire Centre on Thursday.


McCrimmon started by thanking Alex Tuch and Peyton Krebs – who were traded to Buffalo in the Eichel deal – for all of the workthey put in as Golden Knights. He then revelled a bit regarding his newest player, saying Eichel is “one of the top players in the league, one of the top centers in the league, and he’s in the prime of his career as a player who has just turned 25 years old.”

Before opening the floor for questions from media members, McCrimmon smiled and
quipped, “I could probably take a guess at the first couple of questions. You may have heard that he has a neck injury.”


Now that the Golden Knights have their franchise center in Eichel, the biggest, and most obvious question, is “When will they have him on the ice?”


Eichel’s neck injury is, after all, why he was available to the Golden Knights in the first place. He suffered a herniated disc in his neck because of a hit against the boards on March 7 that required surgery to repair. But Eichel and the Sabres disagreed on which surgery he would undergo. The Sabres and their doctors insisted on a fusion surgery, which is a fairly common procedure that many athletes have undergone (notably NFL quarterback Peyton Manning).

That surgery involves removing the damaged disc, and then the two vertebrae on either side eventually inhabit the empty space and fuse together. But Eichel’s doctor of choice, Dr. Chad Prusmack, suggested he instead undergo an artificial disc replacement surgery.


Prusmack informed Eichel that due to the added strain that disc fusion surgery puts on the surrounding discs, 25 percent of fusion patients require additional surgery 10 years later, and perhaps again 10 years after that. Eichel
still plans on playing in the NHL in 10 years, and prefers disc replacement surgery. But an NHL player has never had that procedure, and that concerned the Sabres organization.


Many athletes in other sports have undergone artificial disc replacement. Few play in fullcontact sports, but one example of a full-contact athlete who underwent the procedure successfully is former UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman.


“I have an injury that requires a surgical procedure, and I just find that the disc replacement surgery is superior in my case to the other option of a fusion,” Eichel told John Buccigross on ESPN’s “The Point.” on Thursday. “I’ve done a lot of research, seen a lot of experts, and spoken to a lot of doctors. I think it gives me the best opportunity to get back to (being) myself.”


The medical dispute between Eichel and the Sabres was the main reason the star center was eventually traded to Vegas on Thursday. The Golden Knights have no such disagreement with Eichel’s doctors, and he will have the surgery in the near future.


“We have a lot of respect for the work that’s gone into this from his agent, his second-opinion doctors, the specialists and experts that he’s seen in this field,” McCrimmon said. “We’ll defer to their wishes and respect the choices they’ve made, based on knowing how much work they’ve done to prepare themselves for surgery. Obviously they’re acting in what they believe is the best interest of Jack’s health, not only in the short term but in the long term, and we
completely understand and respect that.”


Eichel hasn’t settled on a date for the surgery and is still ironing out the details about where it will take place, but it’s expected to be very soon. And because he’ll be the first player to undergo the procedure, the timelines for recovery vary.


“Post-operation, it’s about a three-month recovery,” Eichel told Buccigross, “so that’s sort of what I’m looking at now.”
McCrimmon said he expected the recovery to last between three and five months, but quickly followed that up with, “We really don’t know and I’m not trying to suggest that we do know, but that might be the best guess I can give you right now.”


Asked if he planned on playing in the Olympics, which begin on Feb. 9, Eichel responded, “I’d love to play in the Olympics for sure. It’s a goal of mine. I think it’s a goal of every player. With that being said, I think you have to start with some short-term goals. First and foremost, I just want to get my surgery and put that behind me.”


That would be an incredibly aggressive timeline, considering there are only 97 days before the opening game of the Beijing Olympics and Eichel has yet to have the surgery, but it gives us a general idea of when Eichel hopes to be back.
To better understand Eichel’s upcoming surgery and the recovery process that will follow, The Athletic spoke with Dr. Thomas Schuler. While Schuler isn’t involved in Eichel’s specific injury or procedure, he has been a spinal surgeon for professional athletes for 30 years, including 22 years with Washington’s NFL team. He is the chairman of the Medical and Scientific Board at the National Spine Health Foundation. Not only has he performed both fusion and artificial disc replacement surgeries, he’s also undergone both himself.


“Artificial discs are getting much more popular now,” Schuler said Thursday. “It’s becoming a routine surgery for most people.”


So why would the Sabres and their doctors be so concerned with Eichel having that form of surgery?


“When you have impact sports, the concern is, ‘Will the artificial disc get shot into the spinal cord, which would cause paralysis,’ and the answer is we don’t know,” Schuler said. “We don’t have experience with high-level impact athletes having it. That’s what makes doctors scared to be one of the first to do this.”


And while Schuler posed that possibility, he was generally supportive of the procedure, and Eichel and his surgeons are confident enough in the procedure to go forward with it. And the recovery process is shorter than with fusion surgery.


“He should be up walking right away,” Schuler said. “There’s almost no downtime. In fact, you want the individual walking and being active.”


Even prior to the surgery Eichel, has been fairly active. McCrimmon said that he’s heard Eichel has been working out regularly and even practiced contact-free on the ice.


Schuler said that in a typical case, it takes six weeks after the procedure “for the soft-tissue to heal to an adequate ability to give you structural stability.”


If Eichel has the surgery within the next week, that would be in mid-to-late December. According to Schuler, it would then take three months from the date of the surgery for bone incorporation into the disc, and four months before he would consider any sort of physical
contact.


Schuler stressed that he doesn’t know Eichel’s specifics, so this shouldn’t be seen as a strict timeline, but it gives us a better understanding of what Eichel’s next few months will look like, and how soon he could make his Golden Knights debut.


Once fully recovered, Eichel will have no limitations in neck mobility, Schuler said, and should be able to play at his full ability. That’s why McCrimmon and the Golden Knights took this gamble.


“We believe he will make a full recovery,” McCrimmon said. “We believe that if he makes a full recovery, that he will return to form.”


Recovering from the surgery and playing back at Eichel’s full potential are two different things, and the timeframe for that is just as foggy.


“With respect to exactly what that timeframe is, he hasn’t played hockey since March,” McCrimmon said. “So there will be a period of time required for him to return to form, assuming the surgery goes exactly how they intend, and his rehab goes exactly. There are too many variables to say with much certainty when he’ll be (back at the top of his game). The only thing we are sure of is that the surgery should happen quickly, and we’re optimistic that it
will go as planned.”


If Eichel is able to return in three months, as he hopes, that would place him back in the Golden Knights’ lineup in early-to-mid February. Due to the Olympics, Vegas won’t play its next game until Feb. 25. If Eichel returned for that game, he would have 32 regular-season games to get acquainted with his new teammates.


If the recovery process takes closer to five months, which is a timeline McCrimmon mentioned on Thursday, that would mean Eichel would return around early April. Vegas plays 14 games in April to wrap up the regular season.


The later Eichel’s return date moves back, the more Nikita Kucherov’s name will creep into the minds of everyone in the hockey world. Kucherov, of course, sat out the entire regular season for the Tampa Bay Lightning a year ago, returning
in the playoffs when the salary cap is no longer in effect. That pertains to Eichel and the Golden Knights because Vegas would be upward of $10 million over the salary cap if all their players were suddenly healthy.

But Eichel’s situation is far different from Kucherov’s. If Eichel sat out the entire regular season, he would have not played in more than a calendar year and would be jumping into the first playoff game of his life, coming off of neck surgery, and without the teammate and system familiarity that Kucherov has in Tampa Bay. That doesn’t seem like a recipe to get the elite player Vegas expects Eichel to be.

There are so many unknowns. One certainty is Eichel can’t wait to make his Golden Knights debut.

“I’m excited to play at T-Mobile Arena,” Eichel told Buccigross. “(I’m) just excited to get back on the ice, get back to doing what I love to do and that’s playing hockey.”

Originally posted on The Athletic on November 4, 2021.