Because it's the Cup: Bemidji Stanley Cup connections Otto, Motzko reflect on tough journey to win it all
BEMIDJI -- Most knowledgeable sports fans agree that the toughest professional championship to win is the Stanley Cup.
After a rigorous 82-game regular season, 16 teams qualify for the playoffs but just making it into the postseason is not the goal. Players can take satisfaction in advancing deep into the postseason but unless you win four grueling series and hoist the Cup, the season ended in disappointment.
A pair of NHL players with Bemidji ties have completed that journey and earned the right to have their names etched onto the Stanley Cup. In 1989 Joel Otto, who played his collegiate hockey at Bemidji State, was a key member of the Calgary Flames when his team outlasted Montreal 4-2 in the Stanley Cup final series, winning the clinching game at The Montreal Forum.
In 2007 former Bemidji Lumberjack Joe Motzko skated in three playoff games for the Anaheim Ducks and he celebrated with his teammates after Anaheim disposed of Ottawa four games to one in the Cup final.
Both former NHLers can relate to the ordeal that the players go through during the playoffs. But both also agree that the reward is worth the pain and torment.
"Going through the Stanley Cup playoffs is a grind," Otto said. "I think it's the toughest and longest postseason there is. After the final game of the 1989 playoffs in Montreal I remember the elation and excitement of winning the Cup but I also remember taking a sigh of relief because the physical and mental grind was finally over.
"After winning it once I appreciate those who have been able to do it year after year. The teams and the players who can win back-to-back, like Chicago is trying to do now, I really respect."
Motzko wasn't in the lineup when the Ducks won the deciding fifth game in their series against Ottawa but he was in the locker room. He had played in the previous game and was ready to go again if called upon.
"I played in Game 4 against Ottawa and after we won that game we had the chance to go back to Anaheim and win the series," Motzko recalled. "I took warmups in Game 5 but spent the game in the locker room with some of the other players (who also sat out the game). With five minutes to go we put on our gear and after we won (6-2) we skated with the team and with the Cup.
"It is still hard to explain in words what it is like to skate with the Cup," Motzko continued. "It is pretty unbelievable. I dreamed of that moment, like every kid who skated with his buddies in the backyard rink does. And that night I actually did it."
Otto, Motzko took different routes to Cup
Otto and Motzko played different roles and had different responsibilities during their Cup-winning seasons. In 1989 Otto was an NHL veteran center with almost four seasons under his belt. In the 1985-86 campaign the former Beaver helped Calgary advance to the Stanley Cup finals where the Flames lost to Montreal in five games.
That experience helped season Otto and his teammates for the 1989 Stanley Cup run.
"The Stanley Cup playoffs are a mental and a physical test," Otto said. "In 1986 we lost in the finals to Montreal. In 1987 we lost in the first round and in 1988 we lost in the second round after winning the President's Trophy (most regular season points). But the more you play in the playoffs the more prepared you become. The more you realize what it takes to succeed.
"We knew we had a good team in 1988 but we didn't get the breaks and we didn't stay healthy in the playoffs," Otto continued. "But we also knew the core of our team was intact so we were more prepared in 1989."
The 1989 Stanley Cup run began with a 4-3 series win over Vancouver. The seventh game of that series went into overtime but Otto ended it when he and teammate Jim Peplinski skated into the Canucks end and Peplinski's shot from the lower right dot glanced off Otto's skate and into the net.
That victory set the tone for a 4-0 sweep of Los Angeles, a 4-1 series victory over Chicago and the 4-2 triumph over Montreal in the finals.
"We had a scare in the first round with Vancouver but we also had some breaks -- the breaks that every team needs," Otto said. "During the playoffs you prepare to do whatever it takes to win and move on. Nothing can take away from playing the game. Every game is so important. Every shift is so important. Every moment is so important."
For Motzko, even though he wasn't on the ice for every shift, he was ready to play when his number was called.
Anaheim opened its run with a 4-1 series victory over Minnesota, disposed of Vancouver in five games and advanced to the finals by ousting Detroit in six games.
Motzko played in two games during the Detroit series and in Game 4 against Ottawa.
"I may not have been a huge part of the Stanley Cup run but I played a few games and I was able to step in and help when the team needed me," Motzko said. "It was a fun environment and to see guys come together and have their efforts come to fruition with the Stanley Cup championship is something I'll never forget.
"There are so many ebbs and flows within a game and within a series," Motzko continued. "A bounce here and a bounce there can change the game and the series. Everything is amplified in the playoffs and that is why you see guys going down and blocking shots with their face if they have to."
Otto was among the 1989 Flames who sacrificed everything to win the Cup.
"The Stanley Cup playoffs are fun but playing in the playoffs is work," Otto said. "But doing what it takes to advance is what you are out there for. It's a grind and I don't think anybody involved in the playoffs is ever healthy. Everyone has bumps and bruises. I had a thumb issue but you don't notice your injuries. You just play through because you are in the playoffs and there is always somebody willing to take your spot."
And there is always someone on the other bench ready to send you to the training table.
"In the Stanley Cup playoffs you get to know the opponent very well and you develop a hate-on," Otto said. "Obviously, it's a physical game and you tend to hold grudges. There is a different mindset in the playoffs. The games tend to get ramped up physically and you are counted on to be ready."
Among the players ready to take over for a fallen teammate was Motzko, and his job was to prepare each day as if he would be in the lineup.
"The Stanley Cup playoffs are a living hell and guys get banged up every game," he said. "I never knew if I was in the lineup or not and it was important for me to stay prepared physically and mentally so I was ready when I was called to play.
"There is disappointment when you aren't in the lineup but at the same time you want the guys to win," Motzko continued. "Many things behind the scene lead to guys coming together as a team."
The semifinal series against the Red Wings and the environment of Detroit's rink provided memories that still stick with Motzko.
"In Detroit the rink was filled with excitement and the aura of playing against the Red Wings is an unbelievable experience," Motzko, who played two more seasons in the NHL with Washington and Atlanta. He currently laces his skates with EC Red Bull Salzburg of the Austrian Hockey League.
"Hard work and the right mindset can go a long way in the playoffs."
Otto and the Flames also had the right mindset in 1989 and Otto can still remember the taste of success.
"My greatest memory was the euphoria in the room after the Cup was won," said Otto, who continues to live in Calgary where he is an assistant coach for the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. "Not everybody has the opportunity to be on the right team and you are always proud that you were able to do it.
"I can still remember the smile on Lanny McDonald's face. We assumed Lanny was playing his last season and his last playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup is a good way to go out."
Otto played another six years with the Flames and three seasons with Philadelphia. In 1997 he helped the Flyers reach the Stanley Cup finals where they lost to Detroit.
"Winning breeds confidence and you always think you should win," Otto said. "I was fortunate to play on teams that, in my mind, had a chance to win the Stanley Cup every year but not winning it again is a regret. But we did win it in 1989, and we won it in Montreal where no road team had ever skated with the Cup. Calgary is still the only team to ever do that in Montreal.
"That 1989 season definitely was a grind but it was a fun grind," Otto continued. "Winning the Cup is the pinnacle of my professional career and is something I will always remember."