The press release haphazardly tacked up on the bulletin board inside the Saddledome media work room heralding the arrival of an unknown, undrafted, 6-foot-4 centre out of NCAA Division II Bemidji State was brief – all of one paragraph.
For his first training camp, in 1984, Joel Otto was issued No. 71, a number much better suited to a football defensive lineman or wide receiver than to someone who would go on to become one of the most dominant defensive pivots of an era.
“One guy got No. 72 – a defenceman, I think, from Wisconsin,” said Otto. “He didn’t last long. They probably didn’t think I would, either.”
He would go on to spend 11 years in the league, playing in 817 games between the regular season and playoffs.
Since retiring from the NHL in 1998, the product of Elk River, Minn., has made Calgary his home. He recently completed his 13th season as an assistant coach with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen.
The first piece of real estate Otto bought in Calgary was a Strathcona Park condo, purchased from his teammate Neil Sheehy and only six doors down from another teammate and friend, Gary Suter.
“It was good, a two-bedroom place to hang your hat during the season,” said Otto. “Then we got our first house, in Signal Hill. How much did it cost? Can’t remember, to be honest.
“Our son had been born. We lived there two or three years before selling it when we moved to Philadelphia in ’93.”
As tough as butting helmets with Edmonton Oilers star Mark Messier umpteen times a winter had to be, Otto would rather tackle that tough task than the ins and outs of house hunting.
“Thank goodness my wife is good at that kind of thing,’’ he said. Yet, after signing with the Philadelphia Flyers, Otto drove alone across the continent to his new city to get ready for training camp and took it upon himself to find his family’s next home.
“I had a REALTOR® drive me around, looked at six or seven places, and here I am making the decision where to live for at least the next three years,” he said. “Talk about out of character.
“Ended up being a good decision. It was a great neighbourhood and the house had a big yard, which was awesome for the kids and something you don’t find often in southern New Jersey.
“I was quite proud of myself.”
Otto and his family now split their time between Calgary and his home state, an ideal arrangement as far he’s concerned.
“We’ve had a lake place for 30 years in northern Minnesota, so I get the best of both worlds – lake country during the summer and the mountains next door to Calgary in wintertime,” he said.