Ryan Miller has seen a lot of friends and teammates leave Buffalo the past few years. Another joined the list Friday night when Jochen Hecht announced his retirement from the NHL.
As Miller observed the veteran’s emotional departure and soaked in the atmosphere surrounding a special milestone – Miller played his 500th game in the Sabres’ 2-1 shootout victory over the New York Islanders – the goaltender reflected on change.
“Everything comes to an end,” Miller said in First Niagara Center. “It’s not always clean and easy. Most of the time, it’s a little bit dirty and not any fun. It was hard to watch these guys kind of leave a team one by one, but it’s the nature of sports, nature of life. You can’t just hold on to something that’s not sustainable. Everything becomes stagnant if you’re always trying to hold on to one thing.
“You have to keep searching. You have to keep talking to people, meeting people, living life. That’s when things happen for you. That’s when things like winning a championship can happen is when you accept that you can’t just hold on. You have to let go a little bit.”
Though Miller was speaking in general, the message carried a personal undertone.
Miller enters the offseason surrounded by uncertainty about his playing future. The Sabres are rebuilding, and the 32-year-old has just one season remaining on his contract. It’s unclear whether the team wants him to be part of the makeover, or whether he’s willing to be.
So Miller did his best to live in the moment. For the second straight home game, he raised his glove hand in response to crowd noise.
This time, the goaltender was acknowledging cheers after the team announced his 500th appearance.
After making his third save of the shootout, Miller rolled in his crease and reached his arms skyward. He received a kiss on the cheek from a longtime, white-haired fan after a postgame jersey exchange.
And after the Sabres gathered at center ice for one last salute to their fans, Miller was the final player to leave the circle. He did so with waves to every corner of the building.
“I was just trying to have some fun with it, just remind Buffalo people that I appreciate everything they’ve done for me,” Miller said. “Because we’re not going to make the playoffs, it’s something where I can just step out of myself and try and appreciate the moment a little bit more. It was nice.
“I appreciate all the signs everyone had up. The crowd was very receptive, and I really appreciate that. It made it a fun night and something I’ll remember.”
Miller was honored before, during and after the game. His teammates voted him as the Sabres’ Most Valuable Player prior to puck drop. He exited with a 30-save performance that earned First Star honors.
Hecht shared in the spotlight. Interim coach Ron Rolston gave the 35-year-old a rare appearance in the shootout.
The German native stood in the dressing room in the bulky, furry coat worn by the player of the game.
Hecht’s son and daughter hung out with him in the dressing room, and his wife joined the trio on the bench for pictures long after the arena emptied.
“It’s best for everybody to start a new life,” said Hecht, who will continue to play professionally in his homeland. “I’ve got some great memories. I lived here and loved this place for 10 years, 11 years, and Buffalo became a second home to me.”
Hecht arrived in Buffalo in 2002 after a trade from Edmonton. He finished 12th in franchise history with 612 games and is 18th in goals (138) and points (345).
Drafted in the second round by St. Louis in 1995, he actually began his career in Buffalo on Jan. 13, 1999, as a member of the Blues.
“I was fortunate enough to play my first game in Buffalo with St. Louis, and I played my last game in Buffalo,” Hecht said. “It’s kind of full circle, came around. It was a lot of fun.”
Said Miller: “That’s something where it’s hard to watch someone have to step away from something. I’m happy he gets to continue playing hockey, but we’re going to miss him over here in North America. ... He’s played a long time, did a lot of great things.”
The same can be said of Miller.
“The stuff he’s done for this organization and this team over a lot of years now, it’s pretty special for him to get the 500th and get it here at home,” said defenseman and Unsung Hero recipient Mike Weber.
“Obviously, to get the win for him, too, that’s amazing.”