Sunday

Joel Otto

In the mid-1980s, the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers were battling each other not only for Alberta bragging rights, but for NHL supremacy. When they didn't have their hands full with Wayne Gretzky, the Flames had to worry about Mark Messier - a hulking moose of a center who could out muscle any Flame or anyone else in the league. He single-handedly created physical havoc when the Oilers played the Flames.

The Flames needed someone to put a blanket over hockey's supreme power forward. Can you imagine a monster big enough and strong enough to quiet Messier? Not only would he have to be strong, but he'd have to be intelligent, defensively sound and a good skater. Could such a player exist?

The answer ultimately is no, but the Flames found as close a fit as possible when they signed the fearsome Joel Otto.

Otto was a 6'4" 220lb face-off specialist who loved to physically punish any opponent at any time. He became the prototypical 3rd line center that everyone wanted. Huge and strong and not afraid to demonstrate that fact, Otto was very good defensively, and excelled at puck drops. A dedicated athlete and tireless worker, he was a quiet leader. He had decent skating skills but lacked great speed or agility. He also lacked great hand and puck skills to develop into a great scorer. He was a good fighter though rarely dropped the gloves. This is partially because no one wanted anything to do with him and partially because he knew he was to valuable to his team to be spending great amounts of time in the penalty box. But if one of his teammates was being fouled, Otto would be first on the scene.

Otto faced off against all the top centers in the league, shutting them down defensively and physically abusing them at the same time. But the Messier-Otto war-like grudge matches were classic.

"Those two had some incredible battles. He was the only guy I saw who could physically dominate Mark," said former Oiler Mike Krushelnyski.

Joel was signed as free agent by Calgary Flames on September 11, 1984. Otto had just graduated from little-known Bemidji State University and went undrafted by the NHL. Otto played much of his first season in the minor leagues learning the professional game, but was called up for the Flames playoff drive. He played really well, scoring 12 points in 17 games and another 3 points in 3 playoff games.

Joel had his best season in terms of offensive statistics in 1985-86 when he scored career high 25 goals and 59 points. He played a big role in the Flames playoff drive to the Stanley Cup finals as well. Joel's role as the physically dominating center became cemented that season. In addition he chipped in nicely to the offense - scoring 5 goals and 15 points in his 22 post season games.

The Flames of course lost the 1986 Finals to Montreal, but Otto was a big part of the Flames return trip to the Finals in 1989, once again against the Habs. Otto scored 6 goals and 19 points in 22 playoff contests as the Flames captured their first Stanley Cup championship.

Joel scored at least 50 points in his first 4 full seasons, but his offensive numbers began to drop after that as he concentrated more on defensive duties. The ultimate team player, Joel sacrificed his own offensive output for the good of the team. His defensive excellence was eventually noticed league wide, as he was twice a finalist for the Selke trophy as the league's best defensive forward, though he never won the award. He had overcome his early label of a monstrous thug to be one of the league's most valuable and sought after players.

When Mark Messier left the Edmonton Oilers to join the New York Rangers, all the eastern conference teams began searching for an Otto-like player to control "the Moose." Many teams tried many players, but nothing worked really until the summer of 1995. Otto himself had become an unrestricted free agent and the Flames didn't have the money to keep him. A bidding war for Otto's services occurred as team's desperately wanted Otto. The Rangers themselves desperately wanted him in order to keep him away from Messier. Eventually the Philadelphia Flyers outbid the New York Rangers as they made Joel Otto a very rich man.

Otto played 3 seasons in Philadelphia, but by the 3rd season it was apparent that Otto had lost a step. He was used sparingly and was let go as a free agent in the summer time. There was little interest in Otto's services that time around as he was pretty banged up from 14 years of battling in the NHL. Otto could still serve as a face-off specialist, but quietly decided to hang up his skates in the summer of 1998.

Otto retired with 195 goals, 313 assists and 508 points in 943 games. He picked up 1934 penalty minutes along the way. He won one Stanley Cup, played in 2 World Hockey Championships, played in three Canada Cups/World Cups and in the 1998 Olympics! Not bad for a player who was never drafted by any team in the entire NHL.

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