By Bill Hoppe
Jochen Hecht remembers visiting the Queen City more than nine years ago, unsure where his career was heading. Edmonton had just traded the German to the Sabres at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, the second straight summer he experienced the uncertainty that accompanies a trade.
He had played two full seasons in St. Louis and just one with the Oilers. How long could he last in Buffalo?
Hecht first stayed at a local Residence Inn. Eventually, the center found a house.
“Got here, wanted to rent. I ended up buying. I’ve been here since,” Hecht said Monday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the New York Islanders. “We’ve been happy with the situation.”
Today, Hecht, the longest-tenured Sabre, thinks of Buffalo as a second home. In fact, he’s only second in seniority among Buffalo athletes to the Bills’ Brian Moorman, who began punting in 2001.
For a while recently, it appeared Hecht’s long run could be ending. As he began the last season of a four-year, 14.1 million contract, the two-way forward suffered a concussion early in training camp, his second in seven months. He missed the first 20 games, finally making his debut Wednesday.
Before the injuries, Hecht’s normally consistent play had dipped. Once a lock for about 20 goals, 50 points and gaudy plus rating, he wasn’t scoring much or performing as well defensively.
Some observers looked at his $3.525 salary cap hit and figured the Sabres, a team over or near the cap since July, could part ways with Hecht.
The 34-year-old’s looked like his old self through three games. Coach Lindy Ruff threw Hecht right into the fire in his debut Wednesday, awarding him the No. 1 pivot spot between Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville in the Sabres’ fight-filled 4-3 shootout loss to Boston.
Hecht was surprised he received the choice spot so quickly. But he’s seizing the opportunity. He nearly scored his first shift and skated 18:15 against the Bruins. He’s been with the hot wingers since.
“I want to stick with them,” Hecht said.
Ruff said Hecht “had a hell of a game” Wednesday.
“The first game against Boston was really hard,” Hecht said. “There was a lot of controversy about that game. It was really hard on the body, a little sore afterwards the next day. Now I feel like I’m back in the groove.”
Hecht’s first goal Saturday, a short-handed breakaway, put an exclamation point on the Sabres’ 5-1 triumph over Washington. It also marked the first time Hecht had played three straight games since Feb. 26-March 3.
How has someone sidelined so long come back so fresh?
“Well, I’ve been skating for six weeks, even though it’s just conditioning-wise,” Hecht said. “I felt good conditioning-wise. I was surprised the game was not too fast. I was able to keep up right away. I didn’t feel like it was above practice.”
Ruff said Hecht “went through a lot of demanding skates.”
“It wasn’t like we rushed him back,” he said. “He went through a lot of hard workouts. I think he was ready to play. He was ready to play sooner, and we held him out longer than what he wanted.”
Hecht, who began camp in tremendous shape, stopped practicing a couple times when he looked close to returning. He said he felt “about 90 percent for a long period of time.” A week off the ice earlier this month finally turned things around.
“I think that was the point during that week I completely recovered, went back to 100 percent, felt good,” Hecht said. “It just continued on the ice. I worked hard, and I didn’t drop off again. I still feel good.”
Hecht, of course, is playing for a contract, something he’s reluctant to talk about.
“It’s a big year for the team, that’s the way I see it,” he said.
It’s likely the old Tom Golisano regime would’ve let Hecht walk after this season. But anything’s possible now with Terry Pegula in control. If Hecht keeps performing well, he could return for a 10th season.
“I’ve been here for nine years,” Hecht said. “I’ll always feel a little at home here. I’ll feel comfortable. It’s been a good time so far.”