“I never thought if him as a rat. What? Everyone else does? OK…” — Marty Turco, on former teammate Steve Ott.
CHICAGO — There are pests who are loved by their teammates and hated by everyone else. Then there is Steve Ott.
“I love this guy. I mean, I love a lot of people? But he’s close to the top of the list,” said Turco, a retired Dallas Stars goalie. “He’s passionate, he’s caring and we’ve been through both good and bad times together.”
He met Ott when Ott was doing whatever it took to keep a job in the NHL. “The kid just didn’t care, man, He never backed down from anything.”
And that’s why Ott isn’t a rat. Because he’s always stood up for himself.
Today, 795 regular season games later and four months shy of his 34th birthday, Ott is at the other end of a hockey career. Coming off a complex hamstring tear this season — called a hamstring avulsion — and battling colitis, he made his way back into the lineup in Game 3 of this series.
Like a dog who gets kidnapped, then walks through three states to find his family home, Ott entered this series with a sharp elbow aimed at Brent Seabrook, followed soon after by a headlock and face wash session with Jonathan Toews. Immediately upon his arrival, the Blackhawks were sidetracked, engaged in Otter’s world.
“I don’t know,” Ott began. “I thought (Toews) was trying to get me off my game. I thought he had me in a headlock. You (media) guys have to watch the video a little closer.”
There is so much more to Steve Ott than you would ever think. And yes, to all the haters, he is a far, far smarter person than you would ever give him credit for.
His on-ice wit is perhaps the sharpest in the entire National Hockey League. “Maybe the best there ever was,” said Turco.
It is NHL lore that before Ott went to the World Juniors (he played in two), he made sure to learn how to swear in the languages of all his opponents.
“Their F-bombs, they have their own,” explained Ott, who listened to his junior teammates back in Windsor as he beat them at ping pong or won a battle in practice. “You pick ‘em up, and all of the sudden you’re playing Team Russia and you swear at them in their language… They’re laughing, or some of them get heated.”
So he’s just a dummy who can’t play, right? Well, how much Finnish do you speak?
Or Russian? Swedish? Czech…?
Hockey history is littered with players who were smart enough to realize that just because they were the best kid on the team growing up, they weren’t going to be that at this level. Neil Sheehy identified a need for someone to get under Wayne Gretzky’s skin in the old Battle of Alberta, and he made a career out of that.
Andrew Cogliano was once a first-line centre, but eventually figured out he was a checking, utility forward in the NHL. He has played 704 consecutive games to date, and is vital in Anaheim.
Ott was smart enough to carve out a living as an energy guy with some skill and speed. But the question begs: If fighting is on its way out of hockey, can a guy who starts so many of those fights be far behind?
“The game’s changing,” he admits. “I came into the league a little different than most guys, fighting my way and being an energy type of player. But keeping your feet and being able to get there? To make contact? To be able to play with the puck? All those other things that you’re seeing some guys get out of the league because of those issues? I feel like I can still help my team.”
There is a theme that some of hockey’s greatest leaders espouse: the importance of inclusion inside a team’s framework.
“He was taught from a relatively young age that everyone on the team is important, and everyone has a role,” said Turco. “He’s always taken his role as far as he could. I remember a baby-faced kid who’d scored 50 goals in junior. We bugged him that the only reason he’d scored 50 is ‘cause he played with Jason Spezza. Must have been 50 tap-ins.”
“Spezza actually slowed me down,” counters Ott. “I had 26 [goals] in 25 games [with Windsor]. Then Spezza came to the team and I had 25 in the final, like, 35.”
All kidding aside, there is an Alex Burrows-like quality in Ott, in that his teammates would fight Dustin Byfuglien for him, while opponents might not even tap the brakes if they saw him on the crosswalk.
“He’ll do some research to get under a guy’s skin, and he’s got amazing facial expressions,” Turco recalls. “The words hurt, but also his face is painful to look at. You do just want to punch him in the mouth.”
Truly, Ott’s nose has more curves than Sofia Vergara.
“I’ve been punched in this face so many times,” he chuckles. “There are guys who play my role, but they don’t fight. Now, I’m being used in a different role, and I’m really accepting of that role. I want to be on a good team with a chance to win.
“A chance to win is more important than anything else.”
It’s a confluence of expiration dates for the guy known throughout hockey as Otter. His career, his role within the game, his body…
You might hate him, and that’s fine. His teammates love him, and that’s all that matters to the guy who Turco describes perfectly:
“Speed, skill and a mouth to match.”