By Larry Wigge
Around the trade deadline last February -- everybody was after him. But most of the teams that were after Steve Ott were contending teams.
Some call him bellicose. Others say he is truculent. Clearly, his value is far from goals or assists. But, you can't say he has no impact ... with his mouth or with his play on the ice.
Truth be known, the Summerside, Prince Edward Island, native, is just plain yappy in his actions on the ice. Kind of like the mouth from the South, East ...
Ott played for the Dallas Stars for nine years. His best previous season was 2009-10, when he scored 22 goals. Then, last July, he was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for center Derek Roy and defenseman Adam Pardy.
When the Sabres acquired the 6-foot, 190-pound, Buffalo wanted the best agitator in the NHL. Bar none.
A center by trade, Ott works opposing centermen like a drum in the faceoff circle -- winning 57.0 percent of the draws. He has two game-winning goals in the last dozen game, despite the Sabres poor won-lost record. In 43 games through April 15, he has eight goals, 15 assists and a plus-minus ranking at plus-seven.
Once he gets that pretty scary snarl on his face on the ice, good things can happen. Off the ice, always seems to have a smile on his face as he loves to talk about gamesmanship, about playing with an edge, about getting a player off his game or under his skin and about the challenge he relishes of trying to shut down one of his opponent's best players.
"Just give me a shot at playing head up against a Jarome Iginla or Joe Thornton or a Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg," the 30-year-old mucker told me with a determined look. "I'm not going to be a 50-goal scorer, so I had to find my role -- and that seems to be trying to take an opponent off his game, whether its with a big hit or some trash-talking. I don't care.
"All I know is I love to take on guys like that in the compete level. That's my favorite part of the game."
Former Dallas captain Brenden Morrow agrees, "When we look for energy, Otto's one of the guys we look to. He hits, he agitates, he buzzes, he is a presence in front."
I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I asked Ott if there was a particular art to agitating and trash-talking in hockey. It's not unlike an actor trying to play a particular role. Or ...
"It's no different from a fighter doing his homework, watching tape to know the moves of his opponent better. It's all art," Ott explained. "Put me up against an Iginla or Thornton and it can escalate into a real battle of physicality, especially in the playoffs when I just can't pass up the opportunity to hit one of those guys.
"The other guys, the high-skilled, less-physical guys like Datsyuk and Zetterberg? Well, words are not the best way to try to get into their heads. You have to just outwork them."
Ott laughed after he mentioned his mom. "My mom's the sparkplug. She's the one who provides the energy in the family," Ott said. "She loves it when I score a goal more than the fighting. But I also think it's funny, when she wants to know I said to a guy before a fight and what the other guy said to me."
Inquisitive and studious? It does run in the family. And how about this character player with the quick whit?
Smart and fighter? No, it's not a misprint. It could come from his background as the son of two Air Force parents, going from base to base and place to place before winding up in Windsor.
Butch Ott was a warrant officer in the Canadian Air Force. Debby, Steve's mom, was also in the Air Force. Currently, Butch is an ice manager at a rink in Windsor. Both parents were obviously big influences on Steve's life.
Before beginning his professional hockey career, Ott raced kneeldown outboard hydroplanes and runabouts in the American Power Boat Association (APBA). His father is the former world champion and a past national champion in the Outboard Performance Craft -- SST 45 class. He pit crews for his father during his off-season in the summer.
Butch Ott once said that he thought Steve started being the agitator when he was living in Winnipeg when he was about five-years-old.
"Oh, I don't know about that," Ott said, shaking his head. "To me, becoming an agitator all comes from being competitive and working hard. You make a big hit and there's going to be some yapping back and forth. You know?
"With me, the hit or the confrontation comes first, then the yapping," he said, making that point perfectly clear. "To me, there's a fine line I have to skate on between playing good, hard-working hockey and, well, the crossing over the line. I'm trying to stay on the straight and narrow. I want to stay on the ice."
Still, there are those times when ...
"There are times out there when guys on the other side want to kill him," laughed his former teammate Stephane Robidas.
Those layers we talked about earlier. Well, there's one more. I found out about it when I asked Steve Ott when he would be doing for a living if he wasn't a hockey player.
Surprisingly, he said, "I would have liked to have been a jet fighter pilot. But I don't think that would have worked out."
The next part of the answer is the knockout, when he said, "If I'm being realistic, I probably would have become a police officer. It's something where you are still in a teamwork atmosphere."
"Otto's strengths are his grittiness and work ethic," observed Dave Tippett, now now coach the Phoenix Coyotes but a former coach with Dallas.
Believe it or not, Ott scored 50 goals for Windsor -- in 55 games -- the season after he was drafted by Dallas. That was second in the Ontario Hockey League.
"Emotion," Tippett continued, "is a good thing -- and he brings good, positive emotion. It's an emotion that often drags a lot of his teammates along with him. Did I say often?
"There's no doubt we love the passion and impact he brings every night. What I like most is that he's in the middle of the gutsiest part of the game ... all the time."
Steve Ott defies the rules that a guy who primarily uses his fists can also be a pretty smart fellow.
"His comments to the other team are pretty funny sometimes," former St. Louis and Detroit winger Dallas Drake said. "He definitely digs into your background before playing against you. He knows a lot of things. But this season he kind of had a breakthrough as a player offensively.
"You know you don't find many 10-plus goal scorers and fighters. To me, it's a compliment the way he's improved his game."
He studies his opponents. He picks out certain points of their game.
Steve Ott has actually studied the French language, Swedish, Russian ...
"You never know what you are going to need," said Ott. "It may be one word of Swedish to get under an opponent's skin."
Smart guy, he is.