- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Those who predicted last fall the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim would be participating in this spring’s Stanley Cup Finals belong in the make believe world of Mickey Mouse and Pluto.

Nobody, not even Adam Oates, he of the silky touch and keen mind, will say with a straight face that he foresaw this remarkable event.

“I can’t say that I thought that [would happen] this year,” Oates said yesterday after the Ducks skated one last time before playing New Jersey tonight in Game1 of the best-of-7 NHL championship series. “I thought the team was a lot better than the record indicated the last couple years. I never thought it would get this far this soon — it shows how close the league is.”

In March last year Oates was with the Washington Capitals and looked every bit a man who had been engaged in a rough contact sport for more than a quarter of a century.

He was sent to Philadelphia at the trade deadline last season but wasn’t the answer to the varied problems that usually bother the Flyers. He was cut loose and went searching for the right team, his sixth in the NHL. Anaheim called, and so did Ducks superstar Paul Kariya, who said it was a great place to play and was getting better. Oates, who will be 41 this fall, agreed to go West.

Southern California has been nice to Oates. He is tan, the result of many hours spent on the golf course. His hair, with touches of gray creeping into the black he had when he was a Cap, is now brown and shorter than it was. There’s not a ripple of body fat on his 190-pound frame.

“Obviously, I never thought I would be here, of course not,” he said, referring to Continental Airlines Arena where the first two finals games will be played. “I wanted to go to a team where I could play some minutes and prove I could still play, and in the same sense hopefully let some things that you can bring to the table grow a little bit and help the organization.

“It was a lousy start; I broke my hand out of the gate and missed [15] games but the second half of the year was a lot of fun and our team grew. We got better and better and played real good hockey in the second half [25-12-2-3] — obviously the run has been fantastic. It’s great — not to say I told you so — to prove you can still play this game.”

Oates, one of the most graceful and gifted centers ever to play the game, is on the fast track to the Hockey Hall of Fame — and a Cup victory would grease those skids. Yet it has not always been an easy journey through the NHL. Someone with Oates’ talent and ability to turn almost anybody into a legitimate scoring threat should have been treasured by just one team.

It hasn’t happened. Oates has always been outspoken — about the money he or a teammate makes, about a contract negotiation, about linemates — usually saying just enough to get him into hot water and on the next flight out of town. That is why St. Louis traded him after a pair of triple-digit point seasons, why Boston sent him to Washington after two more seasons of startling figures.

Nobody argues with his stats. He has played 18 seasons, with more than 1,275 games, 339 goals, 1,063 assists and 1,402 points. Only five other men in NHL history have more assists than Oates; he is 15th all-time in points. He has 153 points in 156 playoff games.

Yet the Cup has eluded him. Oates has been to the finals only once before, in 1998 with Washington, and falls into a trivia-buffs-only category. Oates has gone 156 playoff games with no championship reward, a figure only four players can top (one of them being ex-Cap Dale Hunter, who is ranked No.1 with 186).

So what?

“If I can play with young guys this year and they get better and they win the Cup in three years, I know I’m a part of that,” he said. “You have to be happy inside. … You have to answer to yourself in the mirror. We’re in the finals and it feels great but it doesn’t change my outlook on life.”

The broken hand was a bad break at a bad time. The Ducks had a rookie coach, Mike Babcock, who knew Oates’ stats but not the man. The broken hand came so early in the season that Oates hadn’t been able to make the proper impression.

“Any time you get a guy who loves the game as much as he does, wants to be in the game and it’s a young man’s game, I think it’s a good message to the other guys,” Babcock said yesterday. “His presence, his understanding, his professionalism, there is nobody who watches more teams than this guy.”

It would appear Oates has finally made the impression he wanted.

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