Last Tuesday’s overtime win in Chicago meant the Blue Jackets snapped a four-game losing skid, topped a Central Division opponent on the road and survived another game with much of their regular roster out with injuries. But for a feisty forward from northern Minnesota, the game meant even more.
Joe Motzko slapped the puck past Blackhawks goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin late in the second period for an unassisted goal to the tie the game, giving the gritty right winger the first goal of his NHL career.
“I’ll take it,” he deadpanned with an ornery half-smile. “But seriously, it’s a relief to get that first one out of the way. Hopefully, there’s many more to come.”
The 26-year-old certainly isn’t satisfied with one glorious moment in Chicago, though. As a lifelong competitor, he strives to keep contributing at the NHL level because that’s what it takes to stay there.
“There are a lot of guys like me,” he said of his current floater status. “When you’re on the verge of getting called up, you want to really succeed down at the AHL level, and it makes you want it that much more.”
Motzko has tasted the NHL before as the Jackets brought him up from the Syracuse Crunch, the team’s AHL affiliate, for two games in 2003-04 and two more last season. He has also found himself on the CBJ’s training camp roster three times, but his shots in preseason games never found the back of the net. With four games and the elusive first NHL point under his belt this year, Motzko has already equaled his previous tenure in the NHL.
Columbus head coach Ken Hitchcock certainly has a good impression of Motzko. ‘Hitch’ penciled in Motzko as a starter in last Saturday’s home game against Nashville. After the game, the coach called his effort “tremendous.”
“Since he’s been up here, he’s been terrific,” Hitchcock said. “He’s got composure in competitive areas, he’s competitive against the boards, and he’s really reliable. He’s got enough quickness to play for me.”
Motzko said, “[Hearing coaches’ praise] is a bonus for me, and it gives me inspiration to keep playing hard and being an energy guy, throwing a few good shifts out there and supporting our team.”
Gary Agnew, Jackets’ assistant coach and former Crunch head coach, has been, as Motzko said “a big part of my success because he gave me chance to play.”
Agnew said he believes Motzko definitely can compete at hockey’s top level.
“What Joe brings is a real intelligence to the game,” Agnew said. “He reads the ice. He plays instinctively out there. He doesn’t lose the puck very often, and when he does, he finds a way to get it back.”
The Crunch value Motzko’s play immensely as he is arguably their most valuable player for the first half of the season. Before getting the call-up to Columbus, Motzko tallied 11-23-34 with a +2 +/- rating at Syracuse, leading the team in points. For his AHL career, he stands at 84-119-203 in 242 games played. Thanks to the all-star break, the CBJ regulars will have a few more days to recuperate from injuries, which means Motzko will start the second half of the season in Syracuse.
“I think everyone should definitely play in the minors for a while,” he said. “It’s definitely a grind down there. You’re playing four games in five nights, sometimes three in three, but you learn how to play the game and help your teammates succeed.”
Though injuries to some of the Blue Jackets’ big names like Rick Nash and Sergei Fedorov sparked Motzko’s recall, he hopes that he gets more opportunities to play with them.
“It’s a learning process day in and day out,” he said. Established stars like Nash and Fedorov show “you have to be good in all aspects of the game–offensively, defensively and in the neutral zone–and pay the price to win every night.”
As a collegiate player, Motzko shined at St. Cloud State, where he earned MVP honors after his senior year for recording impressive NCAA numbers of 52-90-142. He’s been bouncing around in the Blue Jackets organization since his acquisition in May 2003.
After the game Motzko received the puck he scored with as a gift from the organization. When asked what he was doing with it, he chuckled and said, “Eh, I think I’ll hang on to it for a while.”