BUFFALO – Nine months earlier, in the same spot he stood smiling Sunday, Jochen Hecht had fought back tears discussing what appeared to be the end of his long Sabres career.
Back then, concussions – three in 10 months and two in five, including a serious, season-ending one last January – had derailed the German’s career. He was turning 35 years old and entering free agency following a 22-game season.
The chances of the Sabres re-signing the center looked slim.
“There was a time during the summer where I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Hecht said inside the First Niagara Center dressing room shortly after his new one-year, $1 million contract was officially announced. “Everything worked out. All the situations we imagined, I think the best one came up by returning back to Buffalo.”
The Sabres’ longest-tenured player endured a long road back for his 10th season.
While Hecht said he would’ve been healthy enough to play in April if the Sabres had made the postseason, the concussion issue still lingered.
When the NHL lockout started, the German had a standing offer to join his hometown DEL team, the Mannheim Eagles.
But Hecht wanted to stay with his family in Buffalo, so he skated at the Northtown Center with some other Sabres. Finally, Hecht joined the Eagles in December. He hadn’t played a game since Jan. 21.
“Expectations I set for myself were low,” Hecht said after the Sabres’ first training camp session. “I didn’t play for 10, 11 months. I came back to a league that had already played about 30 games (and was in) midseason form.
“I stepped in there, I didn’t think it would go that well. But it came back right away, the timing, the situation, the positioning out there.”
Hecht performed dynamically during his brief six-game run, scoring five goals and 13 points.
“I just had fun over there,” Hecht said. “The first four games I had a smile all over my face, just happy to be back on the ice. Being able to play in my hometown, in that new (SAP) arena, which I haven’t had the chance to do yet, was a lot of fun. There’s no pressure really from anybody.”
He even played beside Sabres captain Jason Pominville, his old linemate who had signed with Mannheim in late November. When Pominville returned to Buffalo last week, he spoke glowingly of Hecht, saying he hoped the Sabres re-signed him.
“We played good together in those six games we played,” Hecht said. “Our chemistry came back. I’m sure he said something to (general manager) Darcy (Regier).”
Hecht also said: “I knew once I (went and) played there, showed that I could still play and be healthy, a door’s going to be opening up somewhere.”
In his prime, Hecht, acquired from Edmonton in June 2002, compiled around 20 goals, 50 points and a gaudy plus rating as a two-way forward.
But at this point in his career, Hecht will have a lesser role than in previous seasons, at least early on, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. He’s likely the third or fourth center.
“It’s something that happened kind of quickly for us,” Ruff said about bringing back Hecht. “But it’s something that we felt (would help) in the depth for the organization.”
Hecht flew back from Germany on Saturday and joined the Sabres’ long Sunday practice about 45 minutes late. When he hit the ice, teammates tapped their sticks.
“We heard a few days ago he may be back,” Sabres winger Nathan Gerbe said. “So I think we’re all excited. He’s certainly worked his way (back).”