It was exactly one year ago Monday that Jochen Hecht took a hit from St. Louis’ T.J. Oshie and suffered his third concussion in the span of 12 months. Three days later, prior to a game in New Jersey, Hecht was despondent in the Sabres’ dressing room when his symptoms flared up. He didn’t play the rest of the season. His time in Buffalo, and maybe even his career in the NHL, appeared over.
At locker cleanout day last April, a red-eyed Hecht insisted he was healthy and wanted to continue his career.
“It was so hard,” he said at the time. “In Jersey, I was gone.”
But the 35-year-old never gave up. He rested and recovered for months, then returned to the ice in December in his native Germany. And 12 months after one of the lowest moments of his life, Hecht is back where he’s been since 2002 – playing a key role for the Sabres.
A major reason the Sabres have won their first two games has been the work of their penalty killers and Hecht, hurriedly re-signed earlier this month to fill a gap at center, has been a main contributor.
“I’m 100 percent healthy now and I know what I bring to this team,” Hecht said Monday in Toronto. “I’m here for a lot of PK work, a lot of shutdown stuff. That’s what I’m comfortable with.”
The Sabres are certainly comfortable with Hecht, long one of coach Lindy Ruff’s favorite players, on the ice in key spots. Hecht has played 21 shifts in each of the first two games, logging 14 minutes, 32 seconds in the opener against Philadelphia and 17:46 in Monday’s win at Toronto.
In both games he was a key to the penalty-killing unit, finishing second to Tyler Myers in short-handed ice time on Sunday at 2:45 and second among forwards to Jason Pominville at 2:57 on Monday. Pretty good bang for the buck for a guy who signed a pro-rated $1 million free-agent deal.
The Sabres have killed nine of 11 penalties and their nine kills over the first three days of the schedule were one off the New York Rangers’ NHL-leading total of 10. Buffalo went 6 for 7 in Monday’s game.
At age 35, Hecht may not be as fast as he once was and thus may never be a 20-goal scorer again. But he still has plenty of hockey acumen to rely on to make sure he’s in the right position on the ice.
“I played six games in Germany but we know it’s a totally different game there,” Hecht said. “The ice surface is a lot bigger. The first scrimmage we had here last Monday [at First Niagara Center] I was kind of lost a little bit. Everything went a little quicker but it’s the NHL. Everything goes quicker, faster, harder. It just took a little while to get used to it again. It’s just so much fun to be back.”
“I thought Jochen has played well,” said Ruff. “On the penalty killing front he did well. I thought he skated well, which is really important for his game.”
Hecht looked like he would start the season as a fourth-line center but has moved to wing on the third line because Ville Leino has been out with a leg injury. That puts Hecht with 18-year-old center Mikhail Grigorenko, who joked over the weekend that Hecht is “twice my age”.
“He’s a veteran guy who knows a lot about the game and can really help you,” Grigorenko said. “I enjoy having the chance to play with him.”
Hecht said Sunday’s win over the Flyers, his first game at First Niagara Center in more than 14 months, was particularly memorable given the lengths he’s gone to continue his career.
“It was a good feeling, really great to be back on the ice in front of our crowd,” Hecht said. “It had been a long time and I was a little nervous in the beginning. But it’s hockey. You get comfortable quick and it’s going well.”
The Sabres took Tuesday off and will return to practice today before flying to Carolina for Thursday night’s game against the Hurricanes. Coach Lindy Ruff said Tuesday on his weekly appearance on WGR Radio that backup goaltender Jhonas Enroth will play in one of the two games against the Hurricanes, either Thursday at PNC Arena or Friday in the teams’ rematch at First Niagara Center.
The Sabres have announced the return of family packs for select Silver level home games. The packs are priced at $199 and include four 300 Level II tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas and four boxes of popcorn (a savings of $104).
The packs can be purchased for Silver games beginning with Friday’s visit by Carolina. Other games available are Jan. 29 vs. Toronto, Feb. 7 vs. Montreal, March 2 vs. New Jersey, March 31 vs. Boston, April 11 vs. Montreal and April 14 vs. Tampa Bay. They are available at Sabres.com.
The team is also renewing its “Student Surge” promotion for college students. Canisius is the sponsor and its students with valid ID can purchase 300 Level II seats normally priced from $39-$78 for just $25 on campus for all remaining games.
A limited supply will also be available at Sabres.com to students from all other schools. Tickets must be picked up with ID at the FNC box office.