Otto-focus keeps Hitmen humming

CAMERON MAXWELL -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:57 AM ET

The man who used to keep Mark Messier in check has settled into his latest role of helping put the Calgary Hitmen on an even keel.

In his first season as an assistant coach with the WHL club, Joel Otto has gone from watching games in the press box earlier in the season to the bench, where he acts as another set of eyes for head coach Kelly Kisio.

Standing 6-ft. 4-in., there's not much Otto, a former Calgary Flame, misses from his elevated viewpoint.

"I'm just another set of eyes for Kelly," said Otto, whose infamous kick-in, Game 7 overtime goal allowed the Flames to eliminate first-round opponent Vancouver on the team's march to its 1989 Stanley Cup championship.

"If I see something, I'm right there to talk to the players or relay something that Kelly wants to tell them."

He retired after 14 NHL seasons following the 1997-98 campaign with the Philadelphia Flyers but has stayed around the game.

After moving back to Calgary, he helped out the

U of C men's hockey team for a couple seasons, then decided to spend more time with his family and coach his son's team for five years.

"After I retired, I wanted to be there for my family. Be there for those important times like dinner and when they got home from school," said Otto."My kids were young and the last thing

I wanted to do was be away from them."

Now that his son is 14 and his daughter 12, Otto figured it was time to continue coaching and knew the Hitmen were looking for an assistant coach.

"It sounded like a nice fit, so I talked to Kelly and it worked out," said the 45-year-old product of St. Cloud, Minn.

"I'm still learning every single day and patience is one of the biggest words.

"You sit here and think you know everything there is to know as a coach but you've got to understand that, aside from the Xs and Os, it's still a game of emotion. As long as you're giving them the right information, that's all you can do."

For Otto -- who rounds out a triumvirate of former Flames behind the Hitmen bench with Kisio and Dave Lowry -- the best part about coaching is helping the kids who want to be helped.

Seldom beat in the faceoff circle, Otto is teaching the Hitmen centres how to win draws on a regular basis.

"It's gratifying to see them wanting to learn. Seeing them stick around after practice and ask questions trying to make themselves better," he said.

Conversely the frustration sets in when the kids don't show the kind of work ethic Otto and his fellow coaches had when they were players.

"The three of us, the way we played was we always had to prove ourselves every night," he said.

"And to get that message across to everybody else is frustrating. Some kids get it and some don't -- a lot of them think they're working hard enough but they don't understand they have to be that much better to get to the next level."


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