BUFFALO – Not surprisingly, Steve Ott jelled with his new Sabres teammates immediately after nine seasons with the Dallas Stars. Having Mike Weber, a friend so close he calls him a brother, helped the transition. And Ott’s infectious personality would probably make the 30-year-old fit in quickly anywhere.
Still, back in January, Ott felt a bit like an outsider. In his mind, he had to earn his Sabres jersey following the offseason trade. The versatile winger felt he hadn’t proven anything to his new team or city yet.
“It’s putting the sweat and tears into that thing and the battles,” Ott said Wednesday inside the First Niagara Center after the Sabres prepared for tonight’s tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs. “Until you get a mark on your jersey, I guess you can say you really haven’t earned the respect from your teammates in this dressing room, earned it from your community and your fans. …
“You have to have that mindset of going in there earning everything that you deserve.”
After only 30 games, Ott has earned the respect of his new teammates and fans, becoming arguably the Sabres’ hardest-working and grittiest presence.
Ron Rolston promoted him to the top line beside Cody Hodgson and Jason Pominville on Tuesday in Montreal, and Ott rewarded the interim coach with two goals, including the power-play winner in the Sabres’ 3-2 overtime victory against the Canadiens.
“He was rewarded for his play,” Rolston said. “He had two real nice goals for us in big, key situations, and he’s earned that because he’s played consistently well and done the same things. You know what you’re getting every night.”
That’s a talented agitator. Ott’s a supreme pest, constantly chirping at, thumping and even fighting opponents. He plays on the power play, kills penalties and possesses enough skill to skate on any line He’s also one of the league’s top faceoff men, a skill Rolston has utilized more than former coach Lindy Ruff.
With the NHL getting tougher by the day, players of Ott’s ilk are in high demand. Under Rolston, Ott, a 22-goal scorer in 2009-10, has been playing a few extra minutes each game. He’s averaging 18:07 a game.
“He’s a skill player. He’s a team-first type of guy, so he’ll do whatever it takes to win,” Weber said. “So I think … guys don’t want to have to compete every shift like that with him, whether he’s just shooting his mouth off or running you over and then shooting his mouth off. With that, I think he creates a little extra space out there.”
But, as his teammates quickly learned, Ott’s value extends beyond the ice.
“I think he’s one of the leaders in the room,” Weber said. “He’s one of the guys that has stepped up at different points of the season and challenged some guys and challenged himself. That’s what he’s all about. That’s the background (military) he comes from that he has to earn things. Obviously, he’s earned it.”
Ott displayed his sense of accountability following a tough home loss last month. When cameras and reporters descended on Pominville again, Ott spoke up, telling media members they go to the captain “for all the problems in here” and 20 other guys “have accountability in this dressing room.”
Ott then fielded questions.
“We’re all in this together, and … give him a break after 15 interviews and the same questions,” Ott said Wednesday.
Pominville, who graciously answers questions nearly every day, appreciated Ott’s gesture.
“I’m not complaining about it. I think I respect it,” Pominville said about speaking to the media. “I’ll get asked a lot of questions. I think, for me, what’s frustrating is when other guys aren’t in the room and you guys come in. It makes your job a little harder. You guys have to come and see me.
“I think it’s good for the public to hear different guys speak, hear what they have to say as well. On that night … it was nice of him to do that.”
Ott’s actions on and off the ice have already made him a fan favorite. His style meshes perfectly with blue collar Buffalo. No. 9 Ott jerseys can be spotted all over during home games.
Interactions with fans on Twitter make Ott feel welcome and appreciated.
“I’ve gotten a lot of positive, great messages from the fans (from) the local area, the community,” Ott said. “I read every single one of them. … It makes you feel good knowing that you have support from your fans, your community. All in all, I just want to show them a hard work ethic and compete every night. Hopefully, they enjoy that style of game.”