TORONTO — Adam Oates was devastated.
Growing up in Toronto just wanting to play hockey, his chances of being drafted into the NHL came and went.
“I didn’t get drafted. You’re a Canadian kid, that’s all that matters,” Oates said. “You go to high school, ‘Did you get drafted yesterday?’ ‘No.’ That’s devastating for a kid in Canada, in Toronto. My parents [said], ‘Hey, keep playing. You never know. You never know.’”
Oates lived by that. Often along the road to Monday’s induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the ex-Washington Capitals center with 1,079 NHL assists went unnoticed or underappreciated.
Even for a confident man, that can leave plenty of doubt that his dream won’t become reality.
“I think every single time that you have a hiccup. I never got drafted in major [junior]. I never got drafted in the NHL,” said Oates, now coach of the Capitals. “You have an inner belief that you’re still good or you can make it, but, yeah, no question you’re like, ‘Uh oh, what if?’”
That question of “What if?” popped up throughout Oates’ life. Fortunately for him, enough scouts and coaches along the way saw something that was worth taking a chance on. And one break at a time, Oates crafted his Hall of Fame career.
‘Trying to please my dad’
Oates developed his passing prowess at a young age. His father, David, emigrated to Canada from England and was a soccer player who idolized Stanley Matthews, known as “The Magician” and the “Wizard of Dribble” because of his passing skills.
It was taught in the family, as Oates described it as, “if you can be unselfish, your teammates will always like you.”
“It just kind of became my role where obviously trying to please my dad,” he said. “I think it’s just the way that you’re 7 years old and your dad’s like, ‘Pass the puck. You’re a centerman.’”
Maybe it happened before Oates was 7. Hall of Famer Brett Hull, who scored 50 goals in 50 games twice with Oates as his center on the St. Louis Blues, said, “I think he was born to be a playmaker.”
It didn’t hurt that David Oates gave his son a stick that allowed him to perfect his backhand and see both sides of the ice. From there, Adam Oates began building awareness on the ice, soon able to see 135 degrees to his left as a right-handed center.
But the idea of being a selfless player was present before he ever laced up a pair of skates, and it showed.
“It brought him much greater pleasure to make a play to set up a teammate who would set up a goal than when he would score himself,” said Mike Addesa, Oates’ coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). “That was his game.”
Lacking flash and dash
Being able to dish the puck to teammates isn’t a bad game to have. Still, it wasn’t good enough to fulfill Oates’ dream of playing major junior hockey, so he spent time in Junior B with the Port Credit Titans and in Junior A with the Markham Waxers.
Oates was more than a point-a-game player at what’s considered Tier 2 junior hockey, but he kept getting passed over.
Hull, playing on the West Coast, admittedly knew little of Oates at the time. But that kind of talent going under the radar still was surprising.
“It’s hard for me to believe that he wasn’t at least a little bit talented as he was growing up,” Hull said. “There’s guys who slip through the cracks all the time.”
At first glance, it wasn’t easy to see why the 5-foot-11 Oates didn’t attract attention.
“Adam was never perceived to be the proper body type,” Addesa said. “He was paunchy; he had high body fats. … He was anything in appearance but the prototypical, ‘This is a hockey player.’”
Most scouts were in awe of players with what Addesa called “flash and dash.”
“The prolific skater, the guy that you say, ‘Wow, can that guy ever skate? Oh my goodness.’ And Adam was at the other end of the spectrum,” Addesa said.
Oates kept plugging away in Markham, but something had to change.
‘RPI was my break’
The change came with a visit to Markham by two of Addesa’s assistants at RPI, Bill Greer and Paul Allen. Oates, for once, stood out.
“[They saw] him within three days, and both of them said the same over to the phone to me: ‘Coach, you’ve got to come and see this guy as soon as you can. This guy is brilliant,’” Addesa recalled.
RPI’s coach agreed and wanted to recruit Oates. But it wasn’t that easy, and it shouldn’t have been surprising given Oates’ struggles to emerge from anonymity early on in his career.
While trying to make the Toronto Marlboros of the Ontario Hockey League in 1980, Oates played two exhibition games alongside teammates who were being paid. Ten days later, the NCAA passed a retroactive rule that athletes who played alongside professionals were ineligible through contamination.
So Oates had to wait as Addesa and RPI athletic director Bob Duquette filed a formal petition with the NCAA to allow him to play.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday: the hearing and the perspiration as you’re on a conference call with 12 members on an NCAA committee, yourself and your athletic director,” Addesa said. “Then you had to wait 24 hours, and we heard back from them that they were going to grant his eligibility, but he would have to sit out the first seven games of our season as a freshman.”
One final hurdle required Oates to take two courses at the Gordon Graydon Memorial Secondary School in Mississauga, Ontario, and get grades of 75 percent Canadian or higher, equivalent to 85 percent in the U.S. He did, gaining admittance to RPI.
It wasn’t exactly the path Oates had envisioned.
“I had never even heard of it when I met Mike Addesa,” Oates said. “I’d never even heard of it.”
Three seasons, 216 points and a national title later, Oates knew it: “RPI was my break,” he said.
‘He worked his butt off’
Oates credited RPI’s national title run for giving him the necessary visibility to get noticed by the NHL. But it wasn’t like he arrived on campus in Troy, N.Y., and became a star.
Addesa told Oates during his freshman year that to make the pros, he had to work on his skating. Eager to do whatever it took, he spent more than two full summers living and working with skating coach Paul Vincent on Cape Cod.
Vincent saw potential in Oates but knew he had “a lot” to improve on with his skating.
“I remember that when we got working together he wasn’t a great skater. But I found out that he also competed in track and was an 800-yard guy or 800 meters today,” said Vincent, who has worked with four NHL teams as an instructor or scout. “When he’d run, you’re in a natural athletic position. But when he skated he tended to lean forward and he was a railroader: feet never completely came back underneath him.”
Blessed with vision and hands that cannot be taught, subpar skating still could have held Oates back. Except he was willing to change everything.
“We kind of reinvented what he had to do and how he had to do it,” Vincent said. “He worked his butt off to get better.”
Oates said he didn’t necessarily get faster, only more agile and stronger, but his track to the NHL sped up tremendously.
Hull puts Oates on the map
From national champion at RPI to rookie with the Detroit Red Wings, Oates earned a four-year, $1.1 million contract and didn’t waste much time before becoming a point-a-game player in the NHL.
But it was a 1989 trade to the Blues that started Oates’ ascent. Addesa already considered his protege a brilliant hockey mind who always wanted to talk about the sport, but it wasn’t until Oates played with Hull that he started seeing things more analytically.
“I talked way more hockey with Brett. And then it started evolving where you start thinking to a different level,” Oates said. “We had a connection, and he’s lighting the league on fire.”
In three seasons on Oates’ wing, Hull scored 72, 86 and 70 goals. In 1990-91 and ‘91-92, he scored 50 goals in 50 games, thanks in large part to Oates, who idolized Brett’s father, the legendary Bobby Hull.
“It’s just we kind of had the same philosophy on the game, we had the same ideas on the game. To me, I was brought up obviously listening to my father and he instilled in me the game was give-and-go,” Hull said. “You’ve got to move the puck and go and get it back. There was no better guy to do that with than Adam because of his skill set.”
Hull, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, scored more than 30 percent of his 741 career goals with Oates as his teammate. “He helped me get into the Hall of Fame,” Hull said.
Oates said that “Hully put me on the map.” But that was just the beginning.
Following his trade to the Boston Bruins, Oates led the league with 97 assists in 1992-93, and the following season helped Cam Neely score 50 goals in 50 games.
Oates singled out helping Hull and Neely hit those milestones as two of the most memorable parts of his career.
“It’s only ever been done a handful of times, and I played with two of them,” he said. “When Brett did it in St. Louis, it was just, I mean he was taking the league by storm. And then when Cam did it, he basically did it on one leg. And watching him prepare every day to try and just play the game, let alone do what he was doing, was an incredible feat. And I had the best seats for both of them.”
Hull praised Oates for having as good a hockey brain as Gretzky or Mario Lemieux. In the modern era Oates’ vision stands out.
“His ability to see the game, not just offensively, but the whole game, from end to end, that’s what made it easy for him,” Hull said. “I wasn’t necessarily a shooter. He was a playmaker, and that’s what he loved to do as much or more beating a defense or beating a defenseman and kind of making them look silly, giving me say a layup or a great wide-open one-timer or whatever it is. He relished in doing that to the defense.”
Oates joked Sunday that “I did score a couple goals.” That’s 341 for those counting. But it was more often than not his job to be the point guard on the ice.
“He could score if he wanted to. The parameters of his game, he was always put on a line with the shooter, whether it was me, whether it was Cam Neely, whether it was [ the Capitals’] Peter Bondra,” Hull said. “You don’t really have much choice if you got a guy who could also move the puck.”
Evolving on the fly
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.
It wasn’t a revelation to Oates, though, given that he was the one coaching up Addesa on defense at RPI.
“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.
Oates credited Bruins teammate Ray Bourque for making him devote more attention to the defensive end of the ice, something he also thinks will help him in coaching the Capitals.
“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.”
Oates said he’s honored but never put himself in the class of Gretzky or Lemieux. As the player with the 16th most points in NHL history, he joins them as a Hall of Famer on Monday night.
It wasn’t the easiest path, from devastation to enshrinement, but Oates found his way.
Said Vincent: “Adam, for a kid that wasn’t supposed to be, turned into a hell of a hockey player.”