By Bill Hoppe
BUFFALO — Last month, Steve Ott and Mike Weber heard a rumor Ott could be joining his close friend with the Sabres. The two laughed, and then resumed working out together at the gym.
The mere thought of Ott coming to Buffalo resonated, however. The gritty forward was cognizant the Dallas Stars might be looking to deal him.
“Could you imagine?” the friends asked each other.
On July 2, about two weeks later, Ott missed a call from Dallas general manager Joe Nieuwendyk at his summer home near Windsor, Ont. He saw a text from Nieuwendyk minutes later.
“I looked at my girlfriend and said, ‘We’ve been traded,’” Ott said Thursday inside the First Niagara Center during his introductory news conference. “I knew right away. I obviously had that feeling.”
Right away, an out-of-breath Ott called Weber, someone so close he calls him a “brother.”
Ott couldn’t get the words out.
“I was like, ‘Uhh,’” Ott recalled. “He was like, ‘Is it breaking up?’ I was like, ‘No, hold on one sec. Let me pull it together. We’re going to be playing together as a Sabre.’ It was pretty exciting.”
On Thursday, Ott, acquired with defenseman Adam Pardy for center Derek Roy, still couldn’t hide his excitement. Being in Buffalo, something he calls a “new adventure,” is special.
“It’s been even more exciting,” Ott said about seeing his new city and team. “I don’t even want to leave. I came in a couple days ago. The city, the people are very excited about this team. I got to meet some of my new teammates. … Obviously, now it feels like home already.”
During the 29-year-old’s first dinner in town, he was brought a dessert with “Welcome to Buffalo” written on it.
“Just a great area and great community,” he said.
Ott said Weber, who began living with his parents as a 15-year-old Ontario Hockey League rookie, spoke highly about Buffalo “every single workout the last few years.” Ott’s mother, Debby, even went on a road trip with Weber last season.
“We always joked about one day playing together,” said Ott, who drove to Buffalo with Weber.
Now it’s happening. The Sabres sorely needed a player of Ott’s ilk – a physical and versatile pest – to counter tough Eastern Conferences foes like Boston and Philadelphia.
“We want to be a harder team to play against,” Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said. “He brings a great work ethic to the game, plays with a certain amount of intensity; he walks the line every night. He’s an agitating guy, irritating guy to play against.”
Ott can play left wing or center, although he mainly plays on the side. His position next season will be determined later, Ruff said. He’s one of the NHL’s top faceoff men, ranking 14th (55.5 percent) last year. He has 85 goals and 1,170 penalty minutes in 566 games.
He believes his game will endear himself to his new community. When he played with tough guy Aaron Downey in Dallas, the two called themselves the “Blue Collar Brothers.”
“That’s my style,” Ott said.
With Ott, enforcer John Scott and 2011-12 rookies Marcus Foligno and Corey Tropp in the fold, Ruff’s confident in the team’s overall toughness, a weakness in past years.
“If you don’t have a team toughness where everybody’s all in, your team’s going to lag behind,” Ruff said. “I think with our additions and what Marcus brought and Corey Tropp brought and what (Patrick) Kaleta, Cody McCormick bring, we’ve got some guys that can make us a harder team to play against.”
Playing in Dallas got harder late in Ott’s nine year-run. The once-proud franchise has missed the postseason four straight years. In September, the Stars filed for bankruptcy and were later sold at an auction.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go there over the last five years there because of the whole ownership issues,” Ott said.
Ott doesn’t believe he’ll experience something similar in Buffalo.
“What a first-class place to be able to play now,” he said.
Sabres general manager Darcy Regier said center Travis Turnbull, a restricted free agent who played his first three NHL games last season, likely won’t be back.
“We have not spoken with Travis, in part because of a shift of some other needs in Rochester,” he said. “We’re beginning to fill up there. I won’t say he’s off the page, but there are probably some other needs ahead of what he provides.”
The Sabres summoned Turnbull when they needed some toughness.
The 14-year, $110 million offer sheet Philadelphia laid on Nashville defenseman Shea Weber hardly surprised Regier.
Would the Sabres ever give such a long contract?
“Those are things that do get discussed, and they were discussed,” Regier said. “They were discussed with the parties, internally and externally. You have those conversations.”
CBC.ca reported “it’s believed” the Sabres offered Zack Parise and Ryan Suter, two coveted free agents who signed with Minnesota, $100 million each.
“I’ll have to leave that as a report,” Regier said. “I’m not going to comment.”
Regier doesn’t think huge contracts being offered as the NHL asks the NHLPA for concessions in a new collective bargaining agreement is “in any way it’s hypocritical.”
“The clubs are going to compete for players,” he said. “They’re going to play within the rules. Those offers are within the rules. I think it’s a microcosm of a bigger picture. But I certainly we’re very supportive of the league’s on that proposal.”
Ott will wear Roy’s old No. 9, his number growing up. May 9 is also his daughter’s birthday. He wore No. 29 in Dallas.