There are all kinds of Steve Ott stories out there, but the craziest one probably comes from his stint with Team Canada at the 2001 World Junior Championships in Moscow.
As he has for everything in his hockey career, Ott prepared relentlessly for that tournament. He was 18 years old and a first-round pick of the Dallas Stars, but on this team that featured big names such as Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley, Mike Cammalleri, Dan Hamhuis and Jay Bouwmeester, he was a grinder.
Ott’s prep didn’t just include ordinary workouts in the weight room or on the ice. His need for linguistics cramming was paramount. There was French, German, Czech, Swedish and Finnish. And, of course, Russian.
When you’re trash-talking the opponent, what better way to do it than to cut them down in their own language?
“Oh no,” a laughing Ott said when the tale was brought up in the Buffalo Sabres’ locker room in First Niagara Center. “It was more or less the heat of the battle when you’re young. You’re playing a different style, and that was my role. I was the energy guy. Against high-output teams, you grab a role any way you can. And that’s the role I grabbed.”
In hockey parlance, Ott is a classic chirper. He has a mouth that roars – and never quiets down. On the ice, on the bench, in the penalty box. He never stops. He’s one of the most hated players in the NHL, as even his Twitter profile says: “Loved by many, Hated by many. … MORE.”
He’s a guy only a teammate or family member can love. But, oh, how both of those groups love him. The fans in Buffalo took to him pretty fast last year, too.
“It’s unbelievable. You can chirp him about anything and not even a half-second goes by and he’s got something to say,” said Ott’s best friend, Sabres defenseman Mike Weber. “Anything he can find to chop a guy down – emotionally or physically – he’s going to find it to get an edge. It’s something to see.”
“It would be funny to see what his Google searches are, that’s for sure,” cracked fellow Sabres winger Patrick Kaleta. “He does his job perfectly.”
Otter is a new-age Rat
Fans of some great old Sabres rivals see a guy like Ott – whom teammates call “Otter” – and conjure up memories of Ken Linseman, who played for the Flyers, Oilers and Bruins in the ’80s and was nicknamed “The Rat.”
Ott enters this season having played 614 NHL games, with all but the last 48 coming in nine years with the Dallas Stars before he was traded to the Sabres for Derek Roy in July 2012. He has 94 goals, 244 points – and 1,263 penalty minutes.
Ott’s career high is 22 goals and the Sabres need him to approach that number this year, which would boost his offense from his nine-goal debut in Buffalo. He can play on the power play and kill penalties and was a plus-3 last year on a bad Buffalo team.
Still, he’s most known for getting under his opponents’ skin. Prior to a faceoff last year, a close-up camera shot showed Ott trying to lick the visor of Montreal’s Jeff Halpern. Yes, lick it. He blew kisses at Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf in another priceless exchange.
When he was in Dallas, the HBO show “24/7” showed him jawing in the faceoff circle with Philadelphia’s Claude Giroux and in the dressing room tunnel with Flyers coach Peter Laviolette during a 2011 game.
During a particularly nasty 2008 game in Boston during which Ott was ejected after a huge brawl, NESN Bruins play-by-play man Jack Edwards ripped him with a “Slap Shot” reference.
“Steve Ott is safely underneath, out of harm’s way, protected by cinderblock walls and his 10-minute misconduct,” Edwards said on the air. “He started it but he wasn’t around at the end, was he? The difference was the Hanson Brothers were funny.”
What’s the secret to driving the opponents crazy?
“It’s compete, first off,” Ott said. “Agitation comes off guys that don’t want to compete. Personally, I think if I can outbattle a guy, I think that drives people more crazier than any words you say.
“Keep making a guy work for his chances, particularly if it’s a high-end guy you’re getting ice time against. You want to make it hard for them to play against you every night out, not giving them a night off. That’s what makes you an antagonist to play against.”
While that may be true, eventually you can get Ott to admit it’s not all pure physical skill. There’s a mental side to things. You do your research before the opening faceoff, especially if a big blemish on your own career is no playoff games since 2008.
“You always look at the stat pack, figure how guys are doing lately,” he said. “Are they struggling, slumping? Have they been dropped to the fourth line? There’s certain ways, soft spots of guys. The main thing over the career is just staying on that fine line where you’re not costing your team.”
A military life
Ott was born in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, but lived a vagabond childhood as part of a military family. His father, Butch, and his mother, Deb, met in basic training for the Canadian Armed Forces in Cornwallis, Nova Scotia, when they were both 18 in 1974. Steve was born in 1982 and had a gift for gab basically out of the womb.
“He was born with it, I kid you not,” Butch Ott said by phone from his retirement retreat in Cape Coral, Fla. “He’s been that way since I can ever remember.”
“I think his smart mouth goes to ‘Mrs. Otter,’ to Deb,” Weber said. “That’s where his smart mouth comes from, the quickness with his responses. Now he’s played in the league so long, and he knows everyone on every team. But he’s a smart guy, knows exactly what a guy’s stats are, how he’s doing on faceoffs, whatever.”
Butch Ott said he and his wife moved 19 times in 21 years, with Steve around for nine of the moves. They finally settled in Windsor, Ont., in 1996 when Steve was 14, and that’s where he thrived in junior hockey.
“The kids he grew up with were tough, the way military families are,” Butch Ott said. “It’s a challenge to kids. You’re always gone somewhere it seems. They teach these kids in schools to step up to the plate and teach them how to be leaders. They’re taught by the country’s leaders.
“You have to survive by going from school to school and from hockey team to hockey team. That’s what you did.”
Butch Ott drove Steve hard about school and hockey. Steve was skating at 2 and Butch was his coach through much of his childhood.
“Pops’ being in the military for 27 years, things weren’t easy at home, let’s be honest,” Ott said. “He made you work for it, and there was only one way and that was through hard work. That’s something both my mom and dad instilled in me is work ethic.”
Friend and teammate
In addition to the military, Butch Ott has a huge hockey background. He coached Steve for many years and was coaching in Junior A and B leagues in Ontario after Steve turned pro. He served a few years as an amateur scout for Dallas.
“He always wanted me to be successful,” Ott said. “In hockey, he cared about doing it points-wise, but to this day the biggest thing is if my work ethic wasn’t there, I’d be hearing about it.”
Weber was one of the players Butch Ott helped groom, bringing the then 14-year-old from Pittsburgh to his Windsor home. Weber and Steve Ott, more than five years older, became workout partners and fast friends.
“When I think of Butch Ott, I think of a father,” Weber said. “He’s a guy who saw a talent in me and a willingness to get better at 14 years old when no one else really saw that. He went to bat for me to make the Windsor Spitfires draft me.
“He’s the guy who woke me up at 6 a.m. every morning for three summers in a row to run three miles to get my weight and body fat down. He really showed me what it takes to be a professional.”
The basement workouts in the Ott family home became core work for two NHL players and gave Weber a glimpse at how his friend was brought up in a tough-love environment that demanded excellence.
“I was scared to death of his dad. I’m still a little intimidated by Butchie now,” Weber said with a laugh. “His big saying was, ‘If I ever find myself working at this harder than you, it’s time to cut you loose.’ I never wanted to disappoint him, let him down. He put so much time and effort and his name on the line for me.”
Butch Ott chuckled when Weber’s story was relayed to him.
“It’s true. I think back on it, and I was actually tougher on Mike,” Butch Ott said. “I’m just happy to sit back and enjoy it now and reap the rewards of a lot of hard work put in by a lot of people. It was far from just me. It was my wife and so many other coaches. We did basically the same for Mike, too.
“They’re so competitive with each other whether it’s on the golf course, playing cards, anything. That’s just the way they’re built, but they’re still best friends.”
Dallas was going younger in 2012, and Ott figured his time there might be up. He heard rumors the Bruins might be interested until the Stars finally pulled the trigger with the Sabres. Ott and Weber had been at the gym in Windsor, but Weber had returned to the family home to make lunch when his phone rang. The conversation was short and sweet because Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier rang into Ott’s phone.
“We were joking that there were rumors about Boston and how I couldn’t wait to play him more because that’s a big rivalry for us,” Weber said. “He calls me at like 2:30 and said, ‘Bro, we’re teammates. Gotta go. Click.’ I thought he was pulling my chain. The conversation was interrupted because Darcy was calling him.”
Last season was a tough year for the Sabres. Lindy Ruff was fired, and the locker room was at times a minefield that new coach Ron Rolston had to wade through. Ott was surprised at the surliness of First Niagara Center crowds and famously criticized fans for booing. He sparred with reporters at times.
“The best way to put it was that it was a tired team,” he said. “The routines were similar to the previous couple years, almost too similar. It’s not just about Lindy at all, but since the change to Ron, having new, fresh air continues on our process, and you saw some success against good teams.
“We saw cohesiveness coming back. You saw guys getting respect from Ron, guys earning their jobs and competing again. We think it’s carried on from the end of last year. Guys are upbeat. They want to be successful.”
Ott is engaging and brutally honest. He says what’s on his mind on the ice, and he does likewise off of it.
“It’s a brotherhood in here. We go to war together every single night we play,” he said. “We go out there to compete, and we’re there for each other, not anybody else. Anyone picks on your brother, who’s coming? In here, that’s a teammate. It’s really important. There’s no cracks, no holes in the armor.”
Kaleta’s locker is next to Ott’s in what they joke is the most hated corner in the NHL.
“Being around a leader like him is a blessing, and being able to sit next to him and learn from him is great,” Kaleta said. “As a leader, off the ice you have to be a good guy so guys learn they can trust you, and when push comes to shove, he can tell you that you need to gear up or do something different. He does a tremendous job of doing it.”
Building a new life
Ott insists he’s low-key at home and really isn’t running his mouth nonstop. He married his second wife, Erica, over the summer in Mexico, and they dote over his 6-year-old daughter, Layna. His French mastiff named Tattoo and bulldog named Bella are photo stars on Twitter. Weber was Ott’s best man, just like Ott was for Weber and his wife, Janine, in 2011.
“I go home, and I park everything. I never bring hockey home, never even talk about it,” Ott said. “It’s basically, ‘How did your day go?’ It’s playing daddy to your daughter and being a husband.”
“He’s got new challenges in hockey and in life,” Butch Ott said. “It’s a great time for him. Erica is a good girl, and he’s just a phenomenal dad with his daughter.”
The family agrees with the notion that Ott, whose contract expires after this year, wants to sign long term with the Sabres and become a team leader.
“My wife bought into the whole Buffalo Sabres thing as soon as we got traded,” Ott said. “She’s born in Las Vegas, raised in Dallas, and we got traded to Buffalo and we came together and she saw the respect that Terry and Kim Pegula have given us. She bought into it all.”
“Buffalo has been great for him. He’s extremely excited about being there and staying,” Butch Ott said. “He said, ‘Pops, I’m in an ‘A’ market where everybody understands the game.’ In Dallas, hockey isn’t really their apple pie. It was kind of like a third sister down there, so this is great for him.”