PITTSBURGH — Jochen Hecht had little to prove. He’d skated 13 seasons in the NHL and participated in four Olympics. With his concussion problems increasing in regularity and severity, folks advised him to retire and move on.
The 35-year-old had more to prove to himself, though. His competitive nature wouldn’t let him go out as a mere spectator for the final three months of his career. He wanted to play again.
Not only has Hecht returned to the Buffalo Sabres’ lineup this season, he’s been ready to play in every game. The comeback and desire have made him a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which is awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.
Hecht was chosen as the Sabres’ candidate by the Buffalo chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association. Members in all 30 NHL cities select one finalist from the team they cover, and the winner is chosen through a vote of PHWA members.
“I always wanted to play,” Hecht said. “It was just a matter of me recovering to 100 percent. There’s always some people that say, ‘You played for so long. You played for that many games. You had a good career. Why do you keep doing this?’
“I love it. I love being in this room. I love the guys in here. It’s a lot of fun when things go right. This year is a tough year, but it still beats any other job you can have.”
It appeared several times Hecht would have to find a new profession. He played just 22 games during the 2010-11 season, missing the latter half because of concussion symptoms, but he returned for the final game of the playoffs.
He suffered another concussion the following year during the opening day of training camp. He appeared in just 45 games in 2011-12 and was shut down in mid-January after suffering a severe setback.
The unrestricted free agent surprised his longtime teammates by skating with them during the lockout.
“Especially recently with the problems he’s had, it was great to see him during this lockout,” Buffalo right wing Drew Stafford said. “He came out and skated with us a few times, and we were thinking, ‘He looks pretty good. This is pretty great.’ ”
As the work stoppage dragged on, Hecht went back to his German homeland and recorded five goals and 13 points in six games with Adler Mannheim of the country’s elite league.
“After being a year off, it showed me that I could still play on the top level,” said Hecht, who signed a one-year deal with Buffalo when the lockout ended. “I was hoping to get a job somewhere. I didn’t know where. It all fell into place when the CBA got signed.
“I’m thankful that it was here. I was able to wplay this last year with my family around me. That’s good.”
As Hecht said, it’s been a tough year. He has skated in a more limited role than during his first nine seasons with the Sabres, and he’s recorded four goals and 13 points in 45 games for the struggling team.
But compared to where he was for most of the prior two seasons, being healthy and on the ice is a huge step forward.
“He was able to stick with it and continue playing,” Stafford said. “I was just very happy for him to be able to get that opportunity at his age and what he was going through. He’s just a great guy to have around, and I definitely have a lot of respect for him.”
After one more game with the Sabres, it appears Mikhail Grigorenko will join his fourth team this season.
Buffalo concludes its campaign at home Friday against the New York Islanders, and the Rochester Americans start the AHL playoffs Saturday in Toronto.
“We haven’t talked about this, but I guess I’ll go to Rochester after the season’s over,” Grigorenko said Tuesday in Consol Energy Center. “I don’t know if they made their decision, but I’m ready to go there. If they want me to go, I’ll go.”
Grigorenko has had a long season. He started with his junior team in Quebec, went to Russia to represent the hosts in the world junior championships, spent two months with the Sabres, went back to Quebec for the playoffs and returned to the Sabres last week. The 18-year-old still feels fresh, though.
“It would be hard for me if I would have stayed on the same team all year long, but I always changed places so all the time it’s been like a new challenge, new season,” he said. “I came back here and all my emotions started again. I feel good.”