Oates reached the Hall of Fame based on those passing skills, but it was far from the only thing he cared about. As his career evolved, he took even more pride in defense.
“There wasn’t a single night that you don’t go into a rink and you want to win the game, but you also want to try and play a little better than Wayne Gretzky,” Oates said.
“I can remember him saying to me, ‘You know, Coach, if that guy doesn’t have his hands, how can he hurt you? So if I engage that man’s hands, I’m going to diffuse anything that he can do to our team,’ ” Addesa said.
“He made me a better player, just because he made me more involved in the whole game, just wanting to,” Oates said. “He never said anything to me. Just playing with him, it rubs off and I wanted to be [like] Ray more. The centerman is the only player on the team that is involved in all four corners all the time.”
Even on the offensive end, Oates wasn’t a static player. It took a different tact to set up Hull, Neely, Bondra and others. He could post Hull up for a one-timer and send Neely driving to the net like it was second nature.
And he could also adjust to defenses and the flow of different games.
“To me he just got the game,” Hull said. “If it was a physical game, he got in there and he got his nose dirty and he took hits to make great plays. If it was a wide-open game, he could just sit there and play wide open and make you look silly. He just understood the game so well, and he had all the skill level you want. He was big, strong, he was great shape. And he had the vision, second to none.”
Using that vision and hands that were his lifeblood, Oates made it to the Hall of Fame after 19 NHL seasons and 1,420 points. He never got the chance to win the Stanley Cup, making two appearances in the Final, with Washington in 1998 and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in 2003.
That was hardly a reason to keep Oates out.
“It’s not all about Cups. There’s a million guys that have won Stanley Cups that don’t deserve one,” Hull said. “The greatest thing to me about Adam Oates getting into the Hockey Hall of Fame is that the respect I have now for the Hall of Fame committee that they were able to look at a guy like Adam Oates, who didn’t get all the accolades and didn’t win a Cup, but they were able to see the talent and the raw talent and the skill and the great career he had and what he did for other players to see that he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame.”
It wasn’t the easiest path, from devastation to enshrinement, but Oates found his way.