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Practice ended at First Niagara Center and Ron Rolston gathered the Buffalo Sabres around him at center ice late Tuesday morning. But what’s normally a 5-minute chat might have lasted 30 seconds because Rolston ushered the players into the locker room for a meeting.

With jokes flying on Twitter and from the media waiting outside about Papal white smoke emerging, some hoots and a couple rounds of loud applause instead emanated from behind the closed doors.

Then came the final verdict on a major decision from Rolston going forward with his team: Wingers Steve Ott and Thomas Vanek have been named co-captains and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff is the alternate captain.

Ott will wear the ‘C’ on the road and Vanek gets the honor at home. Each player will join Ehrhoff with an ‘A’ on nights they’re not serving as captain.

“We just thought both guys represented what we wanted,” Rolston said. “Nothing more, nothing less than that. It’s all about the influence they have on the team. Those guys are big influences on the team. We thought that was the way to go.”

So Rolston’s system means first up wearing the top letter will be Ott, who will be the captain for the season opener tonight in Joe Louis Arena as the Sabres meet the Detroit Red Wings.

“It’s a tremendous honor, the ultimate honor to wear the C for this team,” said Ott, a trade acquisition from Dallas 15 months ago who has quickly become a main locker room voice.

“It’s an honor but as I’ve told the guys, this letter doesn’t mean much if we don’t do anything as a group,” added Vanek, a member of the organization since he was taken with the No. 5 overall pick in the draft in 2003. “… To share it with Steve and Christian is a great honor.”

There were a lot of moving parts to Rolston’s decision, which gives the Sabres co-captains for the first time since the glory days of Daniel Briere and Chris Drury from 2005 to 2007.

The biggest thing is that Ott and Vanek are in the final years of their contracts and teams generally pick their captains for the long term.

Ott has stated publicly his desire to re-sign while Vanek has openly taken a wait-and-see approach while evaluating the Sabres’ rebuild.

“That wasn’t a part of things at all. We wanted the best influence on our young players,” Rolston said. “Thomas has been a big part of this organization for a long time. He knows how it ticks. He wants to have a great year and he also has been really good in camp in helping our young guys develop, whether it’s on the bench or in the room.”

But Rolston acknowledged the elephant in the room when he said of Vanek, “He’s in the last year. He wants to have a great season. We assume he’s going to be here. We want him to be here. And he wants to be here. We want him to be a captain for us.”

Pointing to the letter on his sweater as he spoke, Vanek said being named captain will have no bearing on his ultimate decision to stay or go.

“I said from day one I’ve liked it here, I enjoy being here and having my family grow up here,” he said. “Is it going to make a difference? It’s not about this. It’s about how good our team is.”

All three players are popular in the locker room and Rolston’s decision was well received.

“I think everyone in the room is a believer in all three guys,” said center Tyler Ennis. “But like Ron and ‘Vanner’ and ‘Otter’ said, we all have to lead, all have to do certain things to get this team rolling. We have a lot of faith in those guys.”

“Good choices,” said Ryan Miller. “Veteran players, guys familiar with what we need with this team and in this area.”

Added Tyler Myers, “They back it up with what they do on the ice. They’re really hard workers. The guys in the room really look up to those three. It was a really good pick.”

Oddly enough, the man Vanek and Ott replaced didn’t see the wisdom in Rolston’s decision.

“I think it’s weird,” Minnesota Wild winger and former Sabres captain Jason Pominville told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “They’ve done the rotating thing in the past. I don’t know if it’s their way of doing it. It just feels a little weird to have a couple guys. Usually you want that one guy.”

Clearly the Sabres have their one guy if Vanek is dealt. Assuming he re-signs, the captaincy is going to be Ott’s for the taking. Ott is an agitator and one theory was that some of his antics might be too much for a captain. He admitted he’s heard that talk.

“I try to ride a fine line or an edge,” Ott said. “Over the last so many years since I started wearing an A, I’ve tried to stay on the right line and lead and be an example for the team.”

Ott’s first game as captain will be a toughie.

The Red Wings make their long-awaited move back to the Eastern Conference tonight with the first of four meetings against Buffalo this year as part of the newly formed Atlantic Division. And they’ve got plenty of experts picking them to play deep into May and perhaps June.

“They’ve managed to stay on top for many years,” said Ehrhoff, a regular Red Wing opponent from his days in San Jose and Vancouver. “They’ve always found a way, even with guys like Nicklas Lidstrom leaving, to stay on top. It’s going to be a tough opponent for us to see them on a more regular basis.”

“It’s going to be a good chance to get home, hopefully pick up some energy from friends, family and some excitement,” said Miller, a Michigan native and ex-Michigan State star. “Get back to Joe Louis Arena, get back around to where I started playing. Maybe that’s a good way to start.”

email: mharrington@buffnews.com