It's an understandable request from the alternate captain of the Sabres, who are still technically in the running for a playoff birth: lay off and show some support. But Steve Ott, the veteran forward spending his first season in Buffalo, ought to know that publicly voicing this issue rarely ends well for anyone.
The Sabres spent much of Sunday night getting booed by their own fans, even as they beat the punchless Devils in a shootout. Trapped in their own zone for most of the first half of the game, the FNC crowd offered up sarcastic cheers each time Buffalo managed to get the puck out of their own zone. The restless fanbase has become a topic of conversation, and while Ryan Miller was able to brush off the postgame questions, Ott became the focus when he noted "our fans were booing us every opportunity they had.”
Today, Ott doubled down. On the radio with WGR, as transcribed by the Buffalo News:
"I think it's completely ridiculous, to be honest with you," Ott said. "We go into other buildings, we've won a lot of games and teams should have the same amount of frustration, sold-out buildings and it's funny becaue they're continuing to cheer on their team. They stand behind their team. They respect the work ethic and everything else.
"It's disheartening when we did get hemmed in our zone and they're basically mocking us when you get up past the blueline and you finally get it in their zone after I guess you could say that minute and a half shift when they didn't have a scoring opportunity. I guess you can say it was more the mocking of my teammates and everything else that probably pissed a lot of guys off, including myself."
"You're a fan of the Buffalo Sabres and hopefully you come to cheer us on and motivate us to be good. We've got a lot of young players on this team and they definitely don't deserve to be booed. They deserve to have that excitement and energy. It's definitely not their fault for the last six years of frustration that's gone on."
Maybe the individual Sabres don't deserve this shit. But to the fans, they're jeering the same contiguous entity that hasn't won a playoff series since 2007. Lindy Ruff was fired in February after 16 years at the helm, signaling the start of the transition, but there's still Vanek and
Pominville Kaleta and Hecht and Stafford and Miller and most of all there's still GM Darcy Regier. The fans aren't booing Tyler Ennis or Cody Hodgson; they're booing the laundry, and everything it's stood for over these wasted years.
The Sabres next return home on Thursday, which should be interesting. After practice in Winnipeg today, Ott was asked some more about his comments. He wasn't combative in the least: "They're proud, passionate fans...I think we're all that way." He notably offered up a sound practical basis for worrying about the crowd's support:
"The reason why I care so much is because I have desire to be a Buffalo Sabre for a long time," Ott said. "I don't want to go anywhere. I've made that quite clear I want to be here for a long time. If I'm...trying to attract players, there's nothing better than coming into a building knowing, 'Wow, this is a fun place to play.' And that's obviously concerning...trying to attract the right players into the Buffalo Sabres."
It's absolutely a valid fear. Some free agents will prefer apathy to active enmity from their crowds when things are bad. Right now, Buffalo's not a very fun place to be a hockey player. But it's a trade-off. The fans are engaged and they're passionate and that means when the Sabres do eventually get things turned around, there won't be many better crowds in the league. The goal now for Ott is to keep his head down, and survive until those better days.