I met my now husband, Mark, in 1997. That’s when I met the Buffalo Sabres, too. For the first couple of years we were together, we lived in Birmingham, Alabama so the Sabres remained a pretty distant concept. I watched the ’99 Cup run, but after that, they were off the radar. Even after we moved to Buffalo in August of 2000, I didn’t take to hockey right away. If I said anything about the Sabres, it was usually along the lines of, “These guys are playing again? We need another TV.” But then in 2005-2006, like pretty much everyone in Buffalo, I was sucked in. I started to really watch and before too long, I was taken with the Sabres and hockey.
I had a huge lap desk I usually used while I was watching games – multi-tasking, you know – and being a doodler, I often found myself drawing or writing on it. I caught on to most of the players pretty quickly, but there were three whose numbers just wouldn’t stick in my brain so I jotted them down, making a little cheat sheet.
Those of you who read my former blog, Top Shelf, for any length of time will understand why that’s kind of funny in retrospect. When all was said and done, 55, 10, and 5 ended up being my favorite players. The very thing that made them hard for a complete hockey newbie to remember was ultimately what I loved most about all of them – they were quiet, unassuming players, who despite stretches of really good play, mostly got noticed when they really effed something up.
Maybe it’s a female thing, I don’t know, but for me, there have always been players that for whatever reason, I just love beyond reason. They get under my skin in the very best of ways. It’s usually based on something kind of nebulous, and it goes beyond play on the ice. When Chris Drury and Daniel Briere left Buffalo, I was bummed because of the effect it might have on the team, but I wasn’t bummed on a personal level. I never felt that attachment to them that many fans did. They weren’t my guys.
Jochen, he was one of my guys. I do love the way he played. Anyone who knows me knows I have a type – defense first, offense nice if you can get around to it – and Jochen fit that to a T. He often played against top lines, he could cover for less defensively responsible linemates, and he killed penalties. But I really fell in love with him because he was so…. sheepish. He always seemed slightly embarrassed. If 17-year-old Jochen asked you out on a date, he would have done it while looking at the ground and drawing circles in the dirt with the toe of his shoe.
Most hockey players – even the ones we think of as humble – have some kind of swagger on the ice. They’re really damn good and they know it. Jochen had no swagger. When he finally broke the 20 goal mark, he seemed to think it was kind of ridiculous that anyone was bothering to talk to him about it. When he scored in a shootout, he skated off the ice as quickly as he could, taking no time to enjoy it. It was like he was afraid someone was going to take the goal away once they realized who’d scored it. When he bounced a puck off a post, then a d-man’s leg, then the goalie’s skate, and then into the goal, he always seemed slightly embarrassed that it wasn’t a little bit prettier. He never quite made eye contact with a reporter or camera. He didn’t open his mouth all the way when he talked which made him kind of mumbly He once wore a photo ID to a Sabres event where he, a Sabre, was one of the attractions. If he was feeling really pleased with himself, maybe he’d look mostly at the reporter and give a sweet, half smile. In a room that was often full of immaturity and entitlement, especially this last handful of years, I found him to be utterly charming.
Not looking directly at the ground and almost smiling? Jochen’s feeling good, baby!
Last season wasn’t a very enjoyable one for most of us, I think, but for me, the worst thing about it was everything that went on with Jochen. Not getting to play in the games in Germany at the beginning of the season, the concussions and repeated setbacks, Lindy talking about him being in a bad emotional space and having a bit of a breakdown before practice one day… All that stuff went right to my heart in a way that it wouldn’t have with anyone else on the team. I would have felt bad for anyone, but jeez, I wanted to cry for Jochen. If I’d run into him in public during that period, I might have hugged him.
Bill Hoppe wrote a story a couple of weeks ago that included a quote from Jochen’s agent, bemoaning the fact that the Sabres just cut off contact with Jochen. We’ve heard this before, and I’ve always kind of taken it with a grain of salt. This time of year, it’s an agent’s job to make his client seem sympathetic, and sometimes that means making the team the bad guy. I also don’t know how many general managers do take the time to stop and thank outgoing free agents. But I do know that it’s a sign of how much I love Jochen that I read that and immediately shook my fist at the sky and cried, “THOSE ASSHOLES!”
Since I don’t know if Darcy or Lindy or anyone will get around to thanking Jochen Hecht for his time in Buffalo, I’ll do it instead:
Yo-Yo, sweet, Yo-Yo, I think you’re awesome. During the six or seven years that I’ve been watching hockey, I think you were the most underrated and most underappreciated Sabre. (And I say that as a huge fan of pretty much every underrated and underappreciated player around.) I know that a huge part of the reason that Danny Briere got to skate around and do his thing is because you were covering his ass on the defensive side. I know that there were times when you were out of the line-up and the team struggled and the media and fans contributed those struggles to other things, completely overlooking you. (Remember this chart? That still might be one of the dumbest things The Buffalo News has ever printed.) I’ll never forget being in the arena when you finally broke the 20 goal mark. My three friends and I might have been the only ones who realized what had had just happened but we celebrated like we’d just watched Ovechkin pot number 50. I’ll also never forget that time you decided, for God knows what reason, to give Vincent Lecavalier a black eye. Dude, that was hilarious. I know that you were one of the few good things about the 2007-2008 season. I believe that in the 2010 playoff series against the Bruins, one that required some sandpaper, effort, and two-way play, you were missed a lot more than anyone said. I love that, unlike some of these yahoos, not only would you shoot when you had an open net, you’d shoot when you were behind the net and surrounded by opposing players.
I’ve really enjoyed watching you play hockey. I don’t have to tell you that it’s been kind of a weird time to be a Sabres fan – lots of high highs and lots of low lows. When I think back on my formative years as a fan, however, you’ll always be right in the middle of it, right next to Hank and Toni. I’ll always think of you with genuine fondess and a grin on my face. You showed up at the rink and you played hard. When you didn’t play well, you didn’t seem happy about it. You knew exactly what your role on the team was, and you filled it. I’m not sure what else you can ask of a hockey player. I hope wherever you end up, you find lots of joy and peace. I love you, buddy.