His arrival hardly qualified as stop-the-presses 60-point newspaper headlines or triggered unfettered joy in the streets of, say, Inglewood or Woodbine.
A press release on official Calgary Flames’ stationary, Hemingway-esque in its short, clipped sentences, tacked up on the press-room bulletin board one fall afternoon, was the extent of the fanfare.
Nothing more than an afterthought announcement of the signing of a hulking, rawboned, U.S.-born free-agent NCAA Division II centreman out of Bemidji State, reportedly as big as the 18-foot high statue of Paul Bunyan himself in that Minnesota tourist town.
In retrospect, not nearly sufficient advance hype for a strong, physical, competitive presence who would go on to play such an integral part in the glory days of a franchise.
Now, thirty-six years after first setting foot inside the Saddledome as an undrafted, unknown free agent, the Elk River, Minn., born Joel Otto, as everyone hereabouts is aware, ranks among the most decisive Flames over their 40-year history in Calgary.
Fourteen NHL seasons, the final three in Philadelphia following 11 in Calgary, over 800 total games, a Stanley Cup ring, as well as international experience modelling the red-white-and-blue at the World Cup, Canada Cup and Winter Olympic Games levels.
The big man who legendarily traded helmeted Glasgow-Kiss head-butts hovering over the face-off dot with Mark Messier on so many nights of those many winters is a long-standing mainstay of this community.
Notoriously quiet and self-deprecating (“I just want to fade away,” Otto protested on the day of his characteristically low-key retirement, Sept. 5, 1998. “Out of sight, out of mind, as they say. Guys like me … we don’t warrant retirement press conferences. Maybe somebody will be watching Hockey Night In Canada and say to his buddy: ‘Gee, whatever happened to, you know, what’s his name? … Joel Otto!’ And the other guy’ll shrug and say: ‘Good question. I don’t know. Must’ve retired, I guess.'”), he is 22 years into that retirement.
Since 2005, of course, he’s remained happily close to hockey in his adopted home working as an assistant coach for the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen.
“I quit in ’98, had a small family at the time. I was excited about not being away from them so much; wanted to focus on family life,” Otto recalls today.
“After a year or so, I ended up helping Tim Bothwell with the U of C (Dinos) for a couple of seasons. That’s when I decided to try and get back into the hockey world, to help coach.”
Veering away from the game temporarily, he then segued into another sporting passion, joining Lyle Helland (owner of Simply Golf here in Calgary) in the custom-fit golf club business for a couple of years.
“I really enjoyed seeing that side of the sport,” he says. “I enjoy golf. It was fun. If it led to something else – which it didn’t – so be it.”
But a phone call from an old friend and teammate, Kelly Kisio, then coach/GM of the Hitmen, pulled the big man back into hockey.
“Kiss got me into the community, visiting schools and helping out,” recalls Otto.
“Then one day in the summertime Kelly called asking if I could lend a hand at practices on the days when he was gone, which, as it turned out, wasn’t a lot. So maybe he was just being nice, getting me back into hockey.
“And I’ve been there, since 2005-2006, ever since, with the Hitmen.
“It’s been great. I’ve been able to stay part of the game. I’m at the rink an awful lot. It’s been good.”
In a time of widespread dissatisfaction with one’s lot in life, Joel Otto can be counted as someone completely at ease with where is and what he is doing.
“Everybody keeps asking – well, not anymore – about wanting to maybe go to the next level or be a head coach somewhere,” he says. “Well, no. For personal reasons. Not wanting to bus overnight or on a trip in the Western league. I don’t want to do that. I can’t do it.
“My body wasn’t allowing me to do overnight bus trips and that kind of stuff.
“Staying in Calgary is a priority. We’ve made this our home. The kids were still at that point, growing up, so the Hitmen was a great fit.
“And it’s been good ever since.”
Ask any athlete to identify a worst part of his or her stepping away from the game that has been a major part of their life, whatever game it may be, and invariably they mention the loss of the unique camaraderie that exists on the inside of a team/dressing room environment.
“It’s great to still be involved in that way,” agrees Otto. “I’m fortunate enough to still have a kind of a small locker-room mentality, being in the coaches’ office. I’ve always been around good people here in my time with the Hitmen… Kelly, Dave (Lowry), Brent Kisio, Mike Williamson, Mark French, now Steve Hamilton, (Jason) LaBarbera, Trent Cassan, Jeff (Chynoweth).
“I mean, it’s always been same-old, same-old – come to the rink, talk hockey, have the highs and lows of winning and losing, the competition. That part is comfortable,” Otto acknowledges.
“I guess I’ve always been a sports minded person and wanted to stay involved in some capacity when I was done. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with the rest of my life when I did retire.
“This has gotten me out of the house and kept me in the sport.”
As with so much in today’s world, not only the sporting world, the continuing challenge of COVID-19 has left the upcoming WHL season in flux.
“We’re not really sure of what’s going to happen,” Otto acknowledges. “I get more excited when it gets wintery. I’m going to start missing the game more and more as it gets colder from here on in.
“We’re all hoping they can get this thing figured out and we can get back to as normal as possible.”