Joel Otto remained in Calgary where he has been assistant coach of the city’s WHL team — the Calgary Hitmen. He had a successful NHL career with the Calgary Flames where he spent 11 seasons playing centerman, but now he’s taken his experience off the ice.
Otto has been working as the assistant coach for the Hitmen for more than 10 years.
“Calgary is a great city. I found my wife here. It’s a similar lifestyle to where I grew up in Minnesota. The people are great. You get the mountains, the landscape and pro franchises. I’ve been very blessed to raise my family here,” said Otto.
Otto was born and raised in Minnesota. He had gone undrafted in the NHL prior to his twenties and was continuing to play hockey for Bemidji State University located in Minnesota.
When Otto was 23, he was given the opportunity of a lifetime — move to Calgary and play with the Calgary Flames. He arrived in Calgary prior to the team’s training camp in September 1984. The young player was excited to get started on his new journey.
“I was in awe, obviously coming from my background in a small college in Bemidji, Minnesota. So, coming to a place, playing in the Saddledome with the big crowds — it was quite an experience.”
Otto played 14 seasons with the Philadelphia Flyers and the Calgary Flames. He finished his career with 195 goals, 313 assists and 508 points in 943 career games.
“I think I carved out a decent NHL career for myself. I was able to win a couple of championships along the way and I am very pleased with the way things worked out.”
Otto’s best offensive season came during 1985-86, where he scored 25 goals and had 59 points. That season saw the Flames through to the playoffs where Otto played with the team, which lost in the finals to the Montreal Canadiens. The Flames, however, used the loss as motivation.
“Losing here in 1986, I think kind of kept feeding the fire for everybody. Most of the same guys, a lot of guys that were on that team were around in 1989,” said Otto.
The team went on to the Stanley Cup finals to play the Montreal Canadiens once again — this time with a different outcome. The Minnesota native who went undrafted became a Stanley Cup Champion that same year in 1989.
“The city embraced us,” recalls Otto.
At the end of the 1994-95 season, Otto became a free agent after 11 seasons with the Flames. He returned to the U.S. when he was signed to the Philadelphia Flyers, playing three seasons before retiring.
Immediately after retiring in 1998, Otto returned to the city that gave him his career and where he met his wife and raised his family.
Otto lived in Calgary for a few years before being offered an assistant coaching job with the Calgary Hitmen in 2006. He acquired the position from former Flames teammate, Kelly Kisio, who was the Hitmen general manager at the time. At that point, Otto had already been working for the Hitmen community department and loved the idea of becoming a coach and helping young players.
Matteo Gennaro is a Hitmen player who looks up to Joel Otto. He’s currently seventh in the WHL for goals in his first full season with the team. Gennaro believes Otto has a lot to offer to the players.
“I think he offers another aspect or opinion on the game. You know, he’s really a guy that’s key about details to the game and small details that end up making a big difference. I think he’s just that other opinion and someone that you kind of respect and look up to,” said Gennaro.
Otto’s focus with the Hitmen is to develop players so that they can become successful in hockey and in life.
“I wish I knew what I know now when I played. I think I would’ve been a better hockey player. But, understanding the kids and the excitement of trying to get to the next level, it brings me excitement,” says Otto.
“Like I’ve said, all the things I’ve learned in my career and what helped me get there — I was a unique situation. You know, I wasn’t a protégé and I wasn’t drafted. I had to earn my way and I think I have a lot to offer to these guys.”
The former NHL player added another championship to his resume in 2010, with the Hitmen winning the WHL championship. Otto continues to take pride in his work with the Hitmen and what he has been able to do in the city.
“I’m enjoying what I do. I think it’s a good fit with myself and the Hitmen. I think they appreciate what I do there as well.”