|Mike Mottau's hard work helped him find a home in the NHL with the New Jersey Devils. Mottau highlight video|
Mottau looks like the typical every-day man, one who could easily weather the brutal New England winters to work his blue-collar, 9-to-5 shift. He can walk into the neighborhood bar, belly up, and never be bothered. There’s nothing GQ about him.
“It’s kind of nice because I maybe come off not as a professional athlete, but as a construction worker,” said Mottau, the New Jersey Devils’ 30-year-old defenseman. “I think that goes back to my upbringing. You never want to throw anything in anyone’s face, whether it’s success or failure.”
For the past eight summers Mottau has prepared himself the same way. He worked himself into the best shape possible and entered a training camp hoping, praying this would be his year.
He had tastes of success, dribs and drabs of it earlier in the decade, but nothing solid, nothing lasting.
Devils rookie coach Brent Sutter fell in love with Mottau’s on-ice intelligence and hockey sense back in September and Sutter became the first coach to give Mottau a chance to play a regular shift in the NHL.
Mottau answered by playing an average of 20:39 in 76 regular-season games, trailing only Paul Martin in average ice time for a Devils’ regular.
After his first four Stanley Cup Playoff games, Mottau again trails only Martin in ice time with 21:57 per game against the New York Rangers, the same team that drafted him in 1997 out of Boston College, where he went on to win the 2000 Hobey Baker Award.
Not only is he eating up major ice time for the Devils. But he scored the game-tying goal 4:37 into the third period of Game 4 at Madison Square Garden. It wasn’t enough, though, as the Rangers answered with two in the final four minutes of the game, including the game-winning slap shot by rookie defenseman Marc Staal, to earn a 5-3 victory.
New Jersey now faces a three-games-to-one deficit in the series and Mottau is one loss away from seeing his dream season come to a crashing halt. Game 5 is Friday night at Newark’s Prudential Center.
Even so, don’t expect the outcome of this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal to change Mottau’s view of his long, strange, winding road to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“I appreciate it a little more now that it has taken so long,” Mottau said. “I think I have been the same player as I was the last few years, but the timing of the opportunity and taking advantage of it, it’s a combination of those two things.”
Mottau slightly regrets the timing considering it came at the expense of his current D-partner, Colin White, whose unfortunate, career-threatening eye injury midway through training camp forced Sutter to give Mottau a hard look.
“When you look where he was at the start of the year to where he is now, it has certainly been huge for us,” Sutter said. “For what he lacks in size, he has to make up for in intelligence and understanding of the game. He has both of those traits.”
Three years before he won the Hobey Baker as college hockey’s best player, Mottau was drafted by the Rangers in the seventh round of the 1997 Entry Draft. He finished his four-year career with the Eagles before making his pro debut in 2000, with Hartford, New York’s American Hockey League affiliate.
Mottau was called up to play 18 games with the Rangers that season, contributing three assists and 13 penalty minutes. He played one more game with New York in 2001-02, and four with the Calgary Flames from Feb. 4-9 in 2003 after the Rangers traded him.
That was Mottau’s last NHL action until he wore a Devils jersey the night of Oct. 4, 2007 in Tampa Bay.
“It’s been quite a ride this year,” Mottau said with a smile. “I couldn’t have asked for anything more. I can’t complain about how anything has gone this year. The opportunity to play right out of camp, and the coaching staff having the confidence in me to put me in situations where I can succeed are things I can’t be thankful enough for.”
Although the temptation was there, Mottau said he refused to give up on his dream, even though it appeared he was destined to be an AHL regular.
“It’s just the way I was brought up,” said Mottau, who actually played for six AHL teams in the five seasons before latching on with the Devils this season. “My dad instilled in me at a young age that hard work goes a long way. He’s been on his own running his own construction business since he was 18, so he has always had to work hard. I could have reserved myself to being a minor-leaguer and taking some summers off, but that’s not the way I am. I came into every camp in the best shape possible and this was the year I was rewarded for that.”
“You know what, no one has ever recognized me,” he said, “and it’s not one of those things that I’m looking for at all.”
As for his father, Robert, who still owns his construction company, Mottau said “he’s a man of few words,” but the only thing that has changed is if “you go down to his shop there are some pictures of me playing on the bulletin board.”
In terms of his on-ice approach, Mottau said the worst thing he could have done was get cocky just because he was granted a regular shift by Sutter.
“I was playing this year with that uncertainty and that gives you a mental edge because you have to be focused every shift, every practice,” Mottau said. “As a bubble guy, I have to play that way. You have to guard against complacency. It’s tough to do if you get regular minutes, but to be successful I have to stay on that edge.”
He has stayed on that edge all season, and as a result he’s become one of the feel-good stories of these playoffs -- for however long he and his Devils last.
“He’s fun to be around, a really good guy and we’re all happy for him,” White said. “We didn’t know if he would be here at the beginning of the year, but he made the most of everything. He wants to learn and he wants the pressure.”
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