Jochen Hecht admits he was a miserable soul a year ago. He had the worst season of his NHL career. He was taking it right to heart, and making matters worse, he was taking it right home with him, too.
So last summer, Hecht took his wife and two kids on a vacation to an island off the coast of Spain. He taught the kids to snorkel. Philip, 6, and Victoria, 4, taught him something, too: a child's innocent joy at simply being alive.
Young children don't care about your stats. There's no plus-minus in a kid's world. Every day is a plus. Hecht's wife told him he needed to separate job and family. So he resolved to take a more positive outlook to life, and to greet every day with a smile.
Hecht has been smiling a lot lately. Entering Wednesday's game against Montreal, the 32-year-old German was on his hottest streak in two years. Hecht had scored five goals in his last five games. Over his last 10 games, he had 10 points and a plus-11 rating. For the year, Hecht had 19 goals, 39 points and was plus-15, a team high.
That's what the Sabres had in mind when they gave Hecht a four-year, $14.1 million contract extension in October 2007. But it's a far cry from a year ago, when Hecht finished with 12 goals, 27 points and a minus-9. The left winger was demoted to the fourth line and there was a cry in town to trade him or cut him altogether.
"I was not in a good mood last year," Hecht said Wednesday morning. "I was miserable and down on myself, hard on myself. I wanted to change that. I knew that I had to change it to play better. Even at home, away from hockey, I was still in a bad mood. So I had to learn to separate those two things."
Hecht came back with a positive outlook, determined to regain his old form and his confidence, and to help the Sabres get back in the playoffs. He accepted a role on the third line with Mike Grier and rookie Tim Kennedy. Hecht started slowly, scoring four points in his first 22 games, but the Sabres were winning.
Then, on Dec. 26, after the Sabres had a rough period against Ottawa, coach Lindy Ruff put Hecht back on a line with Tim Connolly and Jason Pominville. The line clicked immediately. Connolly went on a 16-game scoring streak. The line has been pretty much intact ever since.
Hecht has always been a favorite of Ruff's for his responsible, two-way play. But he needed to produce to justify a spot on one of the top two lines. It hurt him to know people felt he was no longer worthy of being a top-six forward.
"There's no doubt it bothered him," Ruff said. "Those are tough days. When you're having a tough year and your position is being questioned, those days are always tough."
Ruff said at the start of the season that Hecht needed to score 20 goals and 40 to 50 points to be effective. Hecht's next goal will be his 20th. His next point will be his 40th. He needs three goals to equal his career high of 22, set two years ago.
Hecht can't point to any specific reason for his revival. Opportunity and optimism can be a dangerous combination. It also helps to be on a line with Pominville and Connolly, who has a way of getting the puck on the stick of goal-scorers.
"That's probably it," Hecht said. "Timmy and Pommer open up a lot of room. Sometimes you've got to get the puck to the net from bad angles. I've had some success with that in the past. Just trying to get the puck in the net and looking at the open corners instead of the goalie."
Hecht said before the season he had something to prove. At the very least, he's proving that last year was a blip in the steady, unspectacular career of a two-way pro. There are still lingering questions about all the Sabres' top six forwards, who need to produce when it really matters: the playoffs.
"Best time of the year," Hecht said with his best little boy's smile.