March 29, 2019 NCAA Men's Hockey West Regional semi-final game between the American International College Yellow Jackets and the St. Cloud State Huskies at Scheels Arena, Fargo, ND. Photo by Russell Hons

Otto Inspires AIC to Victory Over Army

Springfield, MA- In a crowded field of good college hockey stories, American International College is host to several of the sport’s best in the last three seasons. With the lowest operating budget of any DI hockey program, AIC won the Atlantic Hockey Regular Season Championship two years in a row, the 2019 AHC Tournament, and ousted the nation’s top seed (St. Cloud State) in the 2019 NCAA Tournament. Even with the recent success, Tuesday night provided the program’s best and most uplifting story.

Eric Otto was diagnosed with Stage Four Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2018. This wasn’t his family’s first run-in with cancer. “My mom went through the same thing I did when she was 20, and even when I was younger, she was diagnosed a couple times,” said the Burnsville, MN, native.

AIC Head Coach Eric Lang was in the room when the diagnosis came down. “I remember being in the nurse’s office and me crying. I had to act like I had my $#!% together, and he was the calmest person in the room.”

A tough young man tempered by a tough sport and supported by his cancer tested mom, twin brother, and two younger brothers (twins themselves), Otto fought for his life through 12 rounds of chemotherapy to win the good fight against cancer.

Otto muscled through chemo then worked through a rehabilitation battery to get back on the ice. He skated with the team in the winter of 2020 only for Covid-19 to wipe out the schedule in March. Otto struggled to find a way to practice until late July when he relocated to Buffalo and played roller hockey until he could get back to campus. On Tuesday night, 963 days after his last organized hockey game, which was for the Chicago Steel of the USHL, Otto finally debuted for the Yellow Jackets.

Coach Eric Lang decided the night before that Otto would start and held true to his word. Number 12 took the opening draw against the Army Black Knights. “Our captain, Brennan Kapcheck, announced the starters in the locker room and went through them quickly. For me, he just said 1-2. And I didn’t catch it at first. I then realized, ‘wait, did he just say my number?’ I’m not some big superstar, so I never expected to start.” He started, and inspired the team to an important Atlantic Hockey Conference victory.

AIC jumped to an early control on the pace with a 13-6 lead in the shots on goal counter and a 23-10 advantage in the shots attempted column. The Yellow Jackets were rewarded 4:27 into the game when former UNLV club hockey player Elijah Barriga notched his first goal of the season.

The AIC offense continued control in the second period. On the power play induced by an Anthony Firrolo tripping penalty, Chris Theodore delivered a beautiful offensive dot-to-dot pass to Tobias Fladeby, who wired home the 2-0 goal 7:09 into the frame. Just after the half-point, freshman Kyle Jeffers, skating in his first collegiate game after a decorated career pacing the NAHL’s New Jersey Junior Titans in scoring, cleaned up a goal in the crease for his first collegiate tally.

Army tilted the third period ice their way. The shots on net were 10-3 in favor of the Black Knights and the attempted shots were even more lopsided at 26-4. The Knights finally got on the board thanks to Anchorage, AK, native Daniel Haider’s first goal of the season. Stefano Durante was otherwise perfect in the AIC net and got some help from his defense and the day’s emotional center.

In the final minute, Army needed two goals and skated six-on-four, with a power play and an empty net. Eric Otto, known as a defensive minded checking center in the USHL, took the ice. He broke up an Army advance on the offensive blue line and jarred a puck free for his teammate, Tobias Fladeby, to glide the length of the ice and score a short handed empty net goal. That tally put the game out of reach at 4-1 for the Yellow Jackets.

Otto’s teammates insisted on sending him back out to get a goal in the final minute. That pursuit was unsuccessful, but it didn’t matter. “Before we played the game today, we won because Eric Otto played a college hockey game,” commented an elated Coach Lang.

In the postgame, Army’s entire team and coaching staff went to Otto and embraced him, congratulating the redshirt-sophomore on playing hard in the game and earning his way back onto the ice. “Those guys know that there are bigger things than a hockey game,” commented Lang. “Our country is in good hands if those are our nation’s next leaders.”

Otto embraced both his opponents and his teammates, knowing how fortunate he is. “I don’t wanna look too far ahead. I just wanna have a good impact on the AIC hockey team. They’ve done so much for me.”

On the ice, Asker, Norway, native Tobias Fladeby’s two goal game paced the AIC offense. It’s his seventh career multi-goal game.

Stefano Durante stopped 25 of 26 Army shots.

Army’s Trevin Kozlowski stopped 23 of 26 shots.

The Knights drop to 1-1-0 on the year. They’re slated to resume play on January 2nd and 3rd, 2021 with a home-and-home matchup with the Sacred Heart Pioneers. The Saturday’s game is in Bridgeport at the Webster Bank Arena, while the Sunday game is at Tate Rink in West Point, NY.

AIC sits at 3-0-0 after the 4-1 win. The Yellow Jackets are scheduled for a home-and-home this weekend with the rival Bentley Falcons. Friday’s game is scheduled for 5:05 pm ET at the Bentley Arena in Waltham. Saturday’s game is slated for 1:05 pm ET at the MassMutual Center in Springfield.

The Jackets will move forward with more appreciation for the gifts of hockey and life thanks to Eric Otto’s tremendous courage, honorable play, and respected conduct in his fight against cancer.