BUFFALO – Ryan Miller had almost a year to prepare for a trade. Still, the moment hit him hard. When the Sabres dealt the franchise goalie and captain Steve Ott to the St. Louis Blues on Friday night, emotion overwhelmed Miller.
“It just kind of hits you all at once,” Miller said as he broke down inside a packed First Niagara Center media room.
Then Miller, a former Vezina Trophy winner and the face of the Sabres for nine seasons, stepped back from the podium.
He couldn’t keep talking.
With the San Jose Sharks in town and the NHL trade deadline coming Wednesday, it was supposed to be Miller’s last hurrah here. Instead, it became a potentially franchise-altering day for the rebuilding Sabres, the league’s worst team.
Sabres general manager Tim Murray got a big package for the respected veterans: goalie Jaroslav Halak, forwards Chris Stewart and William Carrier, a 2015 first-round pick and a conditional pick that could become a 2014 first-rounder if the Blues reach the Western Conference final or Miller re-signs with them. The Sabres also retained some of Miller’s salary.
“There’s lots of future in it,” Murray said. “The 2015 first we believe is a strong pick. We have a strong goalie coming back in the league who’s been, I believe, pretty well thought of in his career. We have a power forward coming back (Stewart) who is not old, who has term left, who in the past has put up goals, plays a physical tough, gritty game, can fight.”
The Blues, meanwhile, are gunning to win the Stanley Cup this season.
“My dream and my biggest goal … is to have an opportunity and just to have a chance at the Stanley Cup,” said the 31-year-old Ott, who was “honored” to be captain. “I feel they have a great team.”
Miller called joining the Blues “a new adventure.”
“It’s humbling and flattering that they would make that kind of move and bring us in with the intention of giving them some help to push for a Stanley Cup,” he said.
The Blues’ interest in the players started before last month’s Olympics, Murray said. General manager Doug Armstrong, a member of Canada’s management team, kept asking about Miller.
Originally, Murray said, the Sabres wanted to package Miller and Ott, upcoming unrestricted free agents, to the Blues separately.
“We thought maybe the timeline was not going to match up on the two of them, and that changed in the last couple of days,” Murray said.
The deal heated up Friday. Eventually, the sides reached the “point of no return” and couldn’t stop, Murray said.
As the teams were finalizing one of the biggest NHL deals in recent memory, Miller and Ott were preparing to play in a game the Sabres won 4-2.
Around 6 p.m., management told interim coach Ted Nolan that Miller and Ott couldn’t play. Neither player skated in the warm-up, a sign their Sabres careers were over. Jhonas Enroth played for Miller. A team employee backed up Enroth.
Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers said it became “a little bit of a circus” before the game. Saying goodbye was difficult.
“It was pretty different,” Myers said. “We’ve had some trades in the past, valuable guys. … At least it was one guy in those. This time, when you get both of them all at once, it hits you a little bit harder. They’re going to a team they’ll have a legitimate chance this year.”
Nolan added: “A guy like Ryan Miller gets traded, it’s not a normal player getting traded.”
Tears welled up in Nolan’s eyes as he talked about Ott. The two bonded quickly after Nolan took over in November.
“You see what kind of character he is and … you get to see what kind of man he is,” he said. “So it’s tough.”
The 33-year-old Miller, who joined the Sabres in 2002-03 and became their regular starter in 2005-06, was reflective throughout his short chat.
“I’ve basically grown up here. It’s a lot of my life,” he said. “Over a third of my life has been upstate New York. So this is where I grew up and where I had a lot of moments in my life. Things are forever going to be tied to this part of the world. I hope to continue that relationship.”
Miller’s relationship with the community was special, he said.
“People care about each other around here,” he said. “It’s really what makes it nice to play here. You have people who have a strong bond with their sports.”
He added: “You’re not just an athlete here. I’ve always felt like people have taken the time to talk to me on a personal level and always appreciated it. I’m really going to miss this part of the world.”
Miller ranks the Sabres’ surprising 2006 run to the Eastern Conference final as his favorite memory.
“I think it kind of caught everybody in town by surprise a little bit, so there was that extra kind of energy there,” he said. “It was just nice to see where things were turning back for this organization where we really thought this organization deserved to be.”
Halak and Stewart still must pass physicals, Murray said. The 28-year-old Halak led Montreal to the 2010 Eastern Conference final. The 26-year-old Stewart scored 28 goals in 2010-11.
The Blues selected the 19-year-old Carrier, who’s playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, 57th overall in June.
Rumors are already swirling the Sabres will deal both NHL players quickly. Murray wouldn’t rule out anything. Nolan seems intent on riding Enroth the rest of the season.
The Sabres have quietly won three straight games for the first time this season.