Somewhere along the way, it seems like a lot of us decided that every single thing that the Sabres do - heck, everything that everyone in the NHL does - has some deep, resounding meaning. Every decision is a referendum on Sabres management, usually what's wrong with them. Maybe all fan bases are like that, but I don't know, it seems like we might be a little worse. Sometimes a decision - say, drafting a Russian kid after years of avoiding Europeans in the draft - might really be an indication of a deeper thought process or state of mind, but sometimes a one year contract is just a one year contract.
Yeah, I'm talking about Jochen Hecht.
Word started to trickle out Friday that the Sabres have reached an agreement with him for the year, and judging by my Twitter feed, Buffalo was mostly unhappy. I think this is pretty straight-forward. The Sabres didn't appear interested in re-signing Jochen after last season. But here we are, a week from the season finally starting, already down two injured forwards (Cody McCormick and Nathan Gerbe). The compressed schedule is almost surely going to lead to more injuries along with absolutely zero time to mess around with finding people to play in the spots of injured players. The Sabres are already relying on a kid who's played less than half an NHL season in Marcus Foligno and they have to have their fingers crossed that Mikhail Grigorenko, who hasn't played a single second in the NHL, is going to play well enough to stick. The Sabres have use for another NHL-experienced body, the end. This isn't some sign that Sabres brass is stuck in the past or unwilling to part with players. This is a very unusual, very specific situation where it actually makes perfect sense to give a cheap, one year contract to a guy who's played for Lindy Ruff for a million years and has played with many of the players on the Sabres roster. Take some deep breaths and repeat after me. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't mean anything. It'll be okay. It will.
I will admit, though, that I don't really care because I love Jochen Hecht. I love him. I moved to Buffalo in the summer of 2000. Growing up in Birmingham, hockey was nonexistent, and it was a bit of a slow grow on me. When all the learning and adjusting was settled, there were three Sabres I loved: Henrik Tallinder, Toni Lydman, and Jochen Hecht. Let me clarify that I do not believe they were the three best players on the team and I do not believe they were the three most valuable players on the team (though I will fight anyone who wants to argue that they were worthless). That's not what I'm saying at all. But for me, players can fit into a couple of different groups. There are players whose skills I admire and who I'm really glad play for my team. Ryan Miller would be one of those guys. Jason Pominville would be another one of those guys. I'm happy they're Sabres because, more often than not, they're good at hockey. But I don't love them. There's a much smaller group of players and those are the ones I love.
Hank, Toni, and Jochen just had something extra. As someone who's always been more drawn to defense than offense, I appreciated their roles on the team and their style of play, but I just liked them. With Jochen, I think it's his kind of awkward personality. If I was a professional athlete, I'd be more Jochen than Miller. I consider myself a reasonably smart person and I'm pretty comfortable sorting out how I think in writing, but I would hate talking to the press after every game. Not out of any ill-will for them, just because the whole time I'd be thinking, "Don't say anything stupid, don't say anything stupid. Oh, crap! I'm pretty sure that sounded stupider than it did in my brain." Jochen rarely looks a reporter in the eye, he kind of mumbles, he looks like he's ready to take off three words into his answer. I feel that, man. I think I've said this before, but I love that Jochen has zero swagger. When he does something awesome like score in a shootout, he seems embarrassed more than anything. When he backhands a classic Jochen goal in off the d-man's skate, the post, and then finally, the goalie's back, he clearly thinks it's as ridiculous as we do. I could go on, but you can just read the piece I wrote at the end of last season if you want more about why I love Jochen. For now the important part is that I love him and I love him in a completely unreasonable way so don't even bother coming at me with how awful you think he is. I don't really care.
(As an unreasonable Jochen lover, the one that does concern me about him coming back is his noggin. He's an old hockey player but a young man with still young children and a lot of life left to live. I don't want his brain to be noodles. But professional athletes are a crazy and determined bunch and I can understand that last season was probably not the way he anticipated his NHL career ending. In my heart of hearts, I would actually prefer that he retire and live happily ever after. Jochen, buddy, do not die on the ice, please. [He looks and sounds pretty good in this recent interview so here's hoping.]
I've been pretty ambivalent about the lockout up until now, and I think a big part of the reason why is because I was looking at the first season without a player I love unreasonably. Maybe it's just me, but I need that guy. I can watch a bad team if there's someone on the team I really love, and even watching a good team is way more enjoyable when there's someone on the team I really love. I've tried to get attached to other Sabres - I even bought a Robyn Regehr jersey - but it just hasn't taken. I respect Regehr, but I don't love him. I'm still waiting for the next player who will join the ranks of Hank, Toni, and Jochen. I'm optimistic about a few of the youngsters so maybe the next favorite is out there. But he hasn't made himself known yet.
Again, maybe it's just me, but I don't watch sports just for the winning and losing. I know fans who aren't happy with anything less than a championship, but for me, that's a terrible way to watch sports. It means a whole lot of being unhappy and if sports are going to make me unhappy, what's the point? I have real life stuff for that. I would prefer the teams I root for to be functional teams, but at the end of the day, I remember good stuff regardless of the team's overall performance. I remember Hank scoring on future Hall of Famer Marty Broduer in a shootout. I remember Toni Lydman explaining in his hilarious monotone that the key to his move in the shootout was that there was no move. And I remember Jochen Hecht being one of the few bright spots of the not very good 2007-2008 season, finally breaking 20 goals. I remember him picking a fight with Vincent Lecavlier. I remember Marty Biron yelling, with some incredulity, "Yo-Yo! It's Yo-Yo!" from the bench. I don't know. I admit, it's not exciting stuff and it's not stuff that involves big shiny trophies, but it's the stuff I remember and it's the stuff I love about watching sports. It's the stuff that makes me happy to have hockey coming back.
So you grumps can sit in the corner and pout. I'm going to enjoy one more half season with my last first favorite Sabre. He has a little piece of my heart and always will. One more time, long live Jochen Hecht! (Seriously, buddy. Emphasis on long.)