This Is Hockey Culture, Ep. 1 Transcript: Jack Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres and body autonomy

Missed the first episode? No worries! Read it here.

In the first episode of This Is Hockey Culture, Sam and I covered a big conversation about Jack Eichel and bodily autonomy, and how that situation relates to another, current issue in the NHL — the potential for a vaccine mandate. Here is the full transcript for the first episode, and don’t forget to tune in next Monday, when episode two drops!


Kat Pitré: Welcome everyone! You’re listening to This Is Hockey Culture, an SB Nation podcast where we break down the most pressing news circulating the NHL by examining the intersections of politics, identity, sports and culture in order to define what makes hockey, hockey. I’m Kat Pitré —

Sam Siciliano: I’m Sam Siciliano —

Kat: And this is hockey culture!

Sam: So, today we have a big conversation lined up about athletes and their body autonomy, and, more specifically, we’ll be discussing Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres.

Kat: We’ll begin by taking you through a complete timeline of the events from Jack Eichel’s injury to today (which is mid-October at the time of this recording).

Sam: And, we’ll be talking about the importance of personal autonomy and self-ownership of athlete’s over their own bodies.

Kat: And then we’ll end with our last thoughts as to how the concept of bodily autonomy relates to some other current issues in the NHL, and potentially some solutions as to how the NHL and NHLPA could proceed in light of the Eichel situation.

Sam: So before we dive into Jack Eichel, his relationship with the Sabres and our broader conversation about body autonomy in the league — we’re going to give a brief rundown of the timeline of events that have taken place since it was announced that Eichel was injured in early March 2021.

Sam: So … a little over a week into March, it’s reported that Eichel is going to be out — with no timetable for his return, due to an upper body injury. And this is just after he returned from a lower body injury. The day following the injury, the Sabres report that Eichel will miss, at the minimum, a week but that he would continue to be under evaluation, for what we come to find out a day later, is a neck injury.

Sam: It’s nearly mid March when the Sabres announce that Eichel will be out for the foreseeable future, at which point there is no timetable for Eichel’s return. Come the end of March, Eichel is placed on injured reserve, after missing seven games.

Sam: A few weeks pass and we find ourselves in mid-April where it’s reported that Eichel will miss the remainder of the season due to a herniated disk in his neck — this is where we learn the specifics of his injury. The Sabres continue that Eichel will rehab, with no surgery scheduled and he should make a healthy return at the beginning of the 2021-22 season.

Kat: On May 10, TSN reported that both Eichel and the Sabres have different opinions about the next steps of his recovery, with Eichel favoring surgery. Eichel spoke on the “disconnect” with Sabres, saying there’s been a “bit of a disconnect from the organization a bit and myself.”

Kat: GM Kevyn Adams and the team’s medical staff thought a “conservative” approach would be best — meaning, rehab without surgery, saying “there’s a high probability that through a conservative rehab approach, you are able to avoid surgery and you’re able to come back and perform at the top of your game ... that is what everybody agreed upon and that’s the hope that we all still have.” Although they soon changed their position, saying that they would allow ACDF; or, and, bear with me for a second — anterior cervical discectomy with fusion surgery —

Sam: Good one! (laughs)

Kat: (laughs) it’s a long title!

Kat: [ACDF], which is a surgery that NHL players have had in the past. Eichel then asked additional doctors, and was told cervical disk replacement surgery would instead be the best long-term option. The surgeon who advised that this surgery is the best avenue for Eichel is Dr. Chad Prusmack, who went onto Sportsnet’s 31 Thoughts podcast to discuss these two surgery options.

Kat: Dr. Prusmack said of the disk replacement surgery, “This is not an experimental procedure. This is established in the literature as being superior to the ACDF ... It is exactly what I would give my kid and it would be exactly what I would get if I was in Jack Eichel’s shoes.” He goes on to say, “It is extremely effective. It is extremely safe. As a doctor, I’ve got to look at the whole picture. I don’t want to see Jack Eichel because we defaulted to a surgery he did not want ... that when he’s 60 taking care of his grandchildren, he’s had fusions up and down the spine and maybe has difficulty swallowing, etc. It is my job to make sure that he not only performs in a safe way but I have to be his advocate for that.”

Kat: So, GM Kevyn Adams says the Sabres weren’t comfortable with the procedure because it hasn’t ever been performed on an active NHL player, even though disk replacement surgery  is proven to be extremely successful on other athletes such as MMA fighters and rugby players.

Kat: And, the disk replacement surgery would have Eichel in training shape in as little as six weeks and game-ready in as little as eight weeks, with only 4.8 percent of patients needing additional surgery in a 10-year period. You compare that to ACDF, which has a minimum of six months recovery time, perhaps longer, and a 25 percent chance of additional surgery later on.

Kat: By June, we hear radio silence out of Buffalo on the Eichel situation, with the five years Eichel has left on his contract meaning that he can’t proceed with any surgery without the final say of the team. Per the CBA (beginning on page 36 if you want to read it yourself, like we did), players must follow the advice of the team, even though they are legally entitled to a second opinion. If he goes ahead and gets the surgery he would be voiding his contract potentially.

Kat: By July, Eichel’s agents, Peter Fish and Peter Donatelli with Global Hockey Consultants, sent a text to the Associated Press, saying, “We are communicating with the team and are headed toward a resolution,” they also anticipated a trade around free agency which ended up not happening. Eichel has since parted ways with Fish and Donatelli, and is now represented by Pat Brisson of CAA, although he’s still yet to be traded and yet to receive surgery.

Sam: At this point in the timeline it’s September and we learn that Eichel has failed his training camp physical, which, I personally don’t think we were all too shocked about, as well as being stripped of his captaincy, per The Athletic: “I feel like the captain is the heartbeat of your team. I felt we needed to address that,” was general manager Kevyn Adams’ comment.

Sam: So that pretty much wraps up our timeline, and brings us to where we are now. It’s October 2021, and Eichel has still not hit the ice.

Kat: Okay, now that we have run through a timeline of events, let’s take a step back and consider why Jack Eichel can’t just get the surgery himself and his second-opinion doctors have decided would be the best course of action. It’s his body — shouldn’t he have the final say in how his injury is handled, especially since it’s drastically affecting his ability to work and his quality of life?

Sam: So this conversation is definitely one that has a lot of layers to it, right? Here, we’re specifically talking about the NHL, but in any sport when athletes sign their contracts they essentially sign on to allow teams to have an opinion when it comes to decisions about their health. That being said … I wish I had a clearer understanding of where that line is drawn because I look at the Eichel situation — and I see this 24-year old franchise player who should be in his prime. Who, even with the support of science, isn’t allowed to make decisions for his own body. You know … it’s not like he’s out here trying to get surgery in a back alley, right, it’s a very serious, well studied surgery!

Sam: So what I think really bothers me, besides the unethicalness of it all, is the fact that we’re not listening to the doctors who have quite literally committed their lives to this. And in turn, we see Jack Eichel being the one to take what to me feels like a massive L, and in a way, lose the ability to make decisions for his own body.

Kat: At first glance, you can understand why as a business decision the Buffalo Sabres would at first be uncomfortable with the idea of the surgery since it’s never been done on an active NHL player. Could there be unforeseen side effects or recovery problems that affect his trade value? It’s easier to protect Eichel as an asset from a business perspective if he follows the Sabres preferred recovery method because they already know how that surgery and rehab works.

Kat: But once you hear from Eichel’s additional medical staff that the cervical disk replacement surgery is safer, has a faster recovery time, and has a brighter, long term perspective, it’s sort of a no-brainer that that option is superior. But the team and Eichel are still unable to come to an agreement about the best course of action for his injury recovery, and we’re already into next season. At this point, it’s now become an ethical concern of bodily autonomy, like Sam mentioned, and it’s setting a precedent for other NHL players in the future. Who owns athlete’s bodies, and what does that relationship look like?

Sam: Exactly … and I’m starting to wonder at what point does the players association step in and have a bigger presence? Because we know they’re involved, but to what capacity isn’t public yet.

Sam: I think the answer on who owns athletes bodies is actually pretty clear here — it’s the organizations. It’s been a year of pain and lost training for Eichel and just to get back to where he was in terms of physicality and hand eye will be difficult enough.

Kat: I’m so glad you brought up the NHLPA, because they’re at the crux of this issue. Athletes are labor workers, and there’s an inherent uneven power dynamic between management and coaching and athletes, particularly where it concerns medical reasons. Their body is their tool, and if they can’t play, they can’t work. Sure, Eichel will still be paid his contract salary, but he’ll have a harder time securing sponsorship deals and other forms of revenue.

Sam: Right … he’s a franchise player who can’t compete in that capacity. And you bring up an interesting point when you say that their body’s are their tools — because realistically, not only is this going to affect Eichel physically but in turn it’s going to affect his livelihood too.

Kat: Exactly! And if they can’t work, teams are actively losing money, which means that players are susceptible to being pressured into making medical decisions that aren’t in their best interest at the behest of their team, (aka their employers), or play through injuries because, well, that’s the expectation and culture that’s been set out for them. And, of course, they don’t want to let their team down.

Kat: It’s a huge amount of pressure for any NHLer, and that pressure only increases for the captain of a team. Because of this power dynamic, it can sometimes create a barrier that prevents NHL players from fully accessing their right to bodily autonomy. A right, if realized, would allow Jack Eichel to get the preferred surgery he and his second opinion medical staff have decided is the most realistic and obvious course of action.

Sam: I can’t imagine how terrible the trust dynamic is between Eichel, the coaching staff, management and the organization as a whole. I think at this point, even if the Sabres were to “okay” the surgery … there’s too much done psychologically that keeping Eichel in Buffalo would be a horrific idea.

Sam: I think that this situation is a complex one, but to me the most alarming thing about it all is how little we’ve heard from the NHLPA. Regardless of their involvement, the year-long standstill is a heinous one, especially when it comes to someone’s bodily autonomy. So, red flag-y. And the NHL doesn’t publicize things in general, but the radio silence has been incredibly alarming.

Kat: I think what’s really interesting about this broader conversation of bodily autonomy is the parallel it draws to the ongoing debate about whether or not the NHL should mandate vaccines for their players. And, bear with me on this one. At this point they’re recommended, we know teams are strongly advising their players to, but there are some who have chosen not to, a la Tyler Bertuzzi and Zac Rinaldo (at this point are still unvaccinated to the best of my knowledge), and they all — and you hear this a lot from other people who are anti-COVID vaccine — the justification they give is that it’s their body and their right to not get it.

Kat: Which I find interesting since as we’ve discussed in this episode, realizing individual bodily autonomy comes from collective action, meaning that, well, we all have to recognize ours, and everyone else’s individual right to protect ourselves and, in this case, not get sick. Or, in Eichel’s case, get a surgery that benefits him.

Kat: Bodily autonomy also hinges on a very, very important belief that someone else’s decisions or beliefs cannot subjugate someone else’s existence. Meaning again, drawing back to Eichel, he wants this surgery but there’s this team saying he can’t get the surgery, even if it does have a better, long term outlook. When it comes to the vaccine and that sort of parallel, someone deciding to not get the COVID vaccine puts someone else at risk of contracting the virus and potentially dying or having life-threatening and/or life-altering symptoms and medical problems. And, unfortunately, we’ve already seen this in the NHL with several players.

Kat: My reason for bringing in the vaccine thing is that Jack Eichel and the potential for a vaccine mandate in the NHL both sound like unique issues; but they’re not. The NHLPA have had to step in and make health and safety guidelines on behalf of NHL players before, as their employer. And, things like a vaccine mandate or a mandate to allow players to receive surgeries or specific medical actions that are in their best interest are not so out of the ordinary.

Kat: Take this for example; Helmet wearing in 1979 and visors in 2013 are two examples of the NHL recognizing that well, the value of protective equipment and preventing serious injury is in the best interest of the player (both as individuals, as human beings, but also as business assets), despite them being controversial decisions at the time, and not every player wanting to wear a helmet or a visor. Some players protested those protective measures because they felt that they were at odds with a culture of toughness in the NHL, or they genuinely didn’t think they needed them. But whatever a player’s personal opinion on helmets or visors, it’s pretty obvious that being mandated to wear protective equipment makes players safer on the ice. Vaccines are the same idea. You don’t have to believe in science for it to work. And Jack Eichel’s inability to receive the surgery he and other medical professionals have decided is the best course of action is the flip side of that same coin. Players have a right to their individual and collective health and safety, and sometimes the NHLPA is obligated to step in and mandate it.

Kat: When it comes to Jack Eichel, there really isn’t anything in the CBA or any directive the NHLPA has taken that mandates he can take control of his body in this situation. So maybe the solution is that there needs to be an addition to the CBA that players can override their team’s directive to receive medical attention and surgery if their injury is interfering with their ability to work and their quality of life, the same way that Jack Eichel’s continued inability to receive the disk replacement surgery is affecting his.