TORONTO — As Adam Oates received his Hockey Hall of Fame blazer Sunday afternoon, one fan at Air Canada Centre yelled out: “Finally.”
Finally, nine years after he retired, the star center with 1,079 career assists in 19 NHL seasons had his moment in the spotlight. For a player who never won a league award or the Stanley Cup and always was considered a complementary player, this was confirmation of his place among the league’s all-time greats.
“I always viewed myself as a solid player, and if it happened, great. But I never got too emotional about it,” Oates said. “It’s the ultimate compliment as a player being grouped with some of the guys that you respected in the game so much.”
Oates entered the Hall of Fame with Joe Sakic, Pavel Bure and Mats Sundin. Sakic and Sundin made it in their first year of eligibility, while Oates and Bure had to wait for this honor.
“I’ve spent a lot of time doing what almost everybody I’m sure who’s been inducted has done: You reflect on your career,” Oates said in his induction speech Monday night. “I spent a lot of time thinking about the people I played with, my memories of the game and the people that helped me get there. And today is the day of all days that I think I should say thank you.”
The Washington Capitals coach who played for seven teams, including the Caps, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Boston Bruins, wasn’t sitting by the phone in June waiting for the call.
He was busy calling everyone else telling him he just got the Caps job. When he thought reporters were calling to ask about being hired, it took general manager George McPhee telling him to pick up the phone when the Hall of Fame was trying to tell him he got in.
“I never really thought about it,” Oates said. “I’ve always been a little bit of a shy guy when it comes to that, and I’ve always felt that it’s your guys’ job to say that, not mine.”
When the selection committee finally said it, that allowed Oates to think back on a career that included the disappointment of not making a major junior team and not being drafted, but it also featured helping Brett Hull and Cam Neely construct seasons with 50 goals in 50 games.
They already were in the Hall, recognized for their scoring accomplishments. Oates, not trying to be a goal scorer despite 341 of them, went about piling up points in unassuming fashion.
“He was always an underrated player. And I don’t think people really understood how good he was until you had a chance to work with him or play with him,” McPhee said. “You get guys that do many so many different things well it just has such a dramatic effect on your club.”
Not getting attention never bothered Oates. He knew that a goal scorer, a “home run hitter” is more likely to be praised.
Monday night came the equalizer, Oates’ induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and soon his plaque will hang in the Great Hall along with those of Hull, Neely, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
“Through hard work and dedication, Adam Oates overcame not being drafted to become one of the game’s elite setup men,” his plaque reads. “Originally signed by Detroit his playmaking prowess took center stage following a trade to the St. Louis Blues. Oates led the NHL in assists three times, including a career high of 1.48s per game in ‘90-91, earning second-team All-Star honors and 142 points in ‘92-93 as a member of the Boston Bruins. Just the eighth player in NHL history to record 1,000 career assists, Oates finished sixth all-time with 1,079 and 13th in all-time scoring with 1,420 points during his 19 seasons.”
Never the face of a franchise, Oates’ numbers speak for themselves.
“I am very proud of him,” Hull said. “He was a special player, and not too many guys that don’t score the goals and get all the highlights and everything get recognized. And it’s great for the game that he did.”
The Toronto native expected to have his parents in attendance for Monday night’s ceremony along with other family and friends. His induction, his speech, it’s all for them.
Oates mentioned no fewer than 34 people by name in his speech. He became emotional when it came time to thank his wife, Donna, and his parents, David and Loretta.
“I’d like to thank my friends and family, my wife Donna. I love you very much. We met near the end of my career; I wish we could’ve met a little bit sooner. You could’ve seen me when I was a little bit better,” Oates said. “Mom and Dad, I don’t know how you took me to all those games. You supported me, you encouraged me, helped me through the tough times and gave me the chance to live my dream. I know it’s not the easiest thing for our family, but I love you very much. Thank you. I’d never be here without you.”
Thanking so many in his five minutes on stage, a task he knew was impossible to perfect, Oates covered as much ground as possible. And while he was willing to credit everyone else, his former teammates and coaches know Oates also got himself to the Hall of Fame by not letting pitfalls stop him.
Oates’ playing career began with a pair of Super Tacks skates his uncle bought him that he slept with the first night.
“I was one of those kids that played every single day, all day long, watched it, lived it, dreamed it and never stopped,” Oates said.