For the second year in a row, Jochen Hecht found himself sitting on the sidelines as the 2011-12 season came to an end after playing in just 22 games. And once again, a concussion was to blame. This was his third concussion in less than a year, and it was starting to look like this one was serious enough to end his NHL career after 14 seasons.
But just as time can heal all wounds, it also took care of Hecht’s symptoms. So when the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season finally got underway on January 20 at First Niagara Center, the 35-year-old Hecht was in the starting lineup when the Sabres defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 5-2 in their season opener.
Hecht has been injury-free this season, playing in 46 of Buffalo’s 47 games so far after signing a one-year contract on January 11. The only game Hecht has missed all season was as a healthy scratch in New Jersey on March 7. He enters Buffalo’s final game of the season on Friday with five goals and nine assists, including one shorthanded goal, and the game winner against Tampa Bay on April 14.
Hecht’s return from injury has made him a natural choice as Buffalo’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, 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. A finalist is selected from all 30 teams, and the winner is chosen through a vote of PHWA members.
“I went through a lot last year. I always said I wanted to come back and play,” Hecht said with a smile. “I did that, and it’s nice to be recognized like this.”
There was a time when Hecht’s NHL future looked to be in serious jeopardy, with the final blow seemingly coming from a hit in St. Louis’ by TJ Oshie on January 21, 2012. Hecht flew back to Buffalo that night, and then traveled with the team two days later to New Jersey to prepare for their next game.
But during the team’s morning skate on January 24, Hecht started experiencing serious headaches, and he left the ice in considerable distress. The St. Louis game would end up being his last of the season, and many – including Hecht – started to wonder if he would ever be healthy enough to play again.
“When you have a concussion, especially a few in a row, those thoughts cross your mind. I definitely thought about that for a little bit, that this might be it,” said Hecht following the team’s final practice of the year at First Niagara Center on Thursday. “But I waited, and all the symptoms went away. Then I started skating and I felt better every day. For a little bit I thought about that, but once everything settled down, and my emotions settled down, I knew I wanted to be back.”
Hecht skated with his teammates regularly during the lockout, and then returned home to Germany to play six games with his hometown Adler Mannheim Eagles of the German Elite League. He collected five goals and 13 points during those six games, further fueling his desire to play another season in the NHL.
“After the season ended I was ready for training camp and ready to get going again. [Playing in Germany] showed me that my level of play and my compete was still there, and I could still play at a high level.”
Many people questioned Hecht’s desire to return, especially after experiencing multiple concussions in such a short period of time. Hecht discussed his situation at length with family and friends, and is confident that he made the right decision in the end.
“Friends would say ‘You’ve had a great career, so why do you still risk it? Why do you want to risk it?’ But there’s something inside of you that just wants to keep going. It just takes a little bit of time and a little bit of distance from it. But things worked out and I feel great to this day.”