ADVERTISEMENT

Jochen Hecht said on locker cleanout day last April that he was healthy after two years of battling concussions. Still, it looked like the end of a career with the Buffalo Sabres that dated to 2002 and perhaps the end of his time in the NHL altogether.

When NHL players were locked out in September, Hecht didn't rush back to his native Germany to play. Instead, he took time to stay with his family in Western New York. When he finally returned to Adler Mannheim, his hometown team, he thrived with Sabres captain Jason Pominville on his right wing.

“I got cleared at the end of the season to play but I took my time, and not because of my head,” Hecht said Sunday in First Niagara Center. “I made the decision not to play because I didn't want to be separated from my wife and kids that long. It took a while, until December, to go back to playing. It was the right decision.”

Hecht had 13 points in six games for Mannheim and the thin-in-the-middle Sabres signed him to a one-year contract Sunday. The deal has a cap hit of $1 million, well below the $3.525 million Hecht took home last season.

Hecht was in the building early Sunday morning to take his physical. Then he had to wait for his medical papers and the contract to be cleared by the league before he could take the ice about midway through the team's first training camp practice. He entered to a stick-tap salute from several teammates.

“It was fun,” Hecht said. “I saw everybody this morning at the physicals and it was a good feeling to be back part of the Sabres.”

Hecht, 35, is the senior Sabre in age and games played (556). He's 20th in franchise annals in games, goals (133) and points (331) and said returning to the Sabres was his No. 1 objective this season.

“There was a time during the summer where I didn't think it was going to happen but everything worked out,” Hecht said. “The situations we imagined, the best one came out by returning back to Buffalo.”

“It happened kind of quickly for us,” coach Lindy Ruff said. “But it's something where we felt with the depth of the organization, in the short season and where our center men were at, it was important for us to get him in.”

Hecht figures to be a third- or fourth-line center, depending on the Sabres' decision regarding No. 1 draft pick Mikhail Grigorenko.

Hecht had a major concussion relapse after a hit last January in St. Louis. Three days later, he had what Ruff described as a “mental breakdown” in the locker room during the morning skate prior to a game in New Jersey. He did not play again the rest of the season, finishing with four goals in just 22 games. He had averaged 17 goals and 71 games the previous seven years.

Hecht admitted he was nervous when he made his debut in Germany last month but quickly felt comfortable on the ice for the first time in two years.

“The expectations I had set for myself were low. I didn't play for 10-11 months,” he said. “To come back to a pretty good league that had already played about 30 games, midseason form. I stepped in there and I didn't think it would go that well. It came back right away.”

At this point in his career, Hecht's role is clearly seen as a stabilizer, a guy to play 10-15 minutes a game and to win faceoffs and kill penalties.

“We'll see what happens, see what the best situation is for Buffalo,” Hecht said. “I know the game. I've been in the system for a long time. Whatever they want me to do, I'll do it.”

email: mharrington@buffnews.com