PITTSBURGH — Adam Oates and Dan Bylsma sat next to each other on bus rides and plane trips. On the road, they flew into a city and found a coffee shop to visit and talk hockey.
That happened during the 2002-03 season when Oates and Bylsma played for the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim.
“We’d call it ‘hot stove,’” Bylsma recalled. “We hot stove’d for an hour, two hours before dinner, and we did that every road trip. So I spent a lot of time with Adam talking about the game, our team and the hot stove in hockey.”
Back then, the Pittsburgh Penguins coach saw a future behind the bench for Oates, who is just 11 games into his tenure with the Washington Capitals. Bylsma didn’t know what to expect from a star player like Oates when he became a teammate, but what he discovered was someone with knowledge that could translate to coaching.
“He certainly has the mentality for it,” Bylsma said. “A skilled, highly skilled player, but kind of a real nuts-and-bolts coach, a real X’s-and-O’s guy.”
It’s rare that a Hall of Fame player becomes a successful coach, let alone a Stanley Cup-winning coach. Bylsma, who led the Penguins to the Cup in 2009, laughed about that challenge because his 62 points in 429 NHL games didn’t make him ripe for induction.
He could only speculate as to why Oates could go against the grain of greats who flame out as coaches.
“I think sometimes with skilled, great players, they see the game at a level that’s different than everybody else,” Bylsma said. “When you see the game and you expect it to be this way and you can see these situations, but other players on the ice … don’t see it that way, that can be a tough thing for a person to translate into coaching.
“I think Adam’s a little bit different than that. He’s a guy who saw the game at an extremely high level, but he’s also a guy who I related to in terms of him applying it to our coach, our situation, our team and a lot of different things.”
Oates was at the tail end of his career by the time he got to Anaheim. The Mighty Ducks made the Cup Final that year, so it meant plenty of coffee for him and Bylsma, affectionately referred to as “Disco Dan.”
“We had a great year. We ended up losing Game 7 of the finals, and Disco and I got along really well,” Oates said. “He’s a very smart guy, as we know. We had some very smart conversations with him and a real good time.”
Oates didn’t project Bylsma as a coach back then because his teammate “already had children’s books that he was writing with his father. [He was] very diversified.”
Before Oates got to Anaheim, those around him saw coaching potential. Tim Hunter, now on Oates’ staff in Washington, was an assistant to Ron Wilson during the center’s time with the Caps.
“He was always asking the questions that would get him one step ahead of the play,” Hunter said. “As a coach, you’re always trying to put your best players in the best positions to succeed, whether it’s with a certain player or against certain players.”
A column in the Ottawa Citizen last week citing history being against Oates wasn’t lost on the Caps coach. Wayne Gretzky, Phil Esposito and Bryan Trottier were plucked from the coaching graveyard as examples of Hall of Fame players who couldn’t cut it as coaches.
Bylsma surmised that Oates being a “student of the game” should help him avoid a similar fate. Hunter has a different theory.
“A lot of guys get into coaching to do something,” he said. “He didn’t get into coaching just to do something. He wanted to become a great coach. And [during] the three years he spent as an assistant coach, he studied the game immensely.”
Hunter acknowledged that Oates’ coaching career is a “work in progress,” but he believes the 50-year-old is doing it the right way.
Why Oates thinks he won’t go the way of Gretzky and others has to do with having to work for success rather than fall back on pure skill.
“The game didn’t really come natural to me,” Oates said. “I was a more analytical person. I can’t speak for them, but [for] some guys the game came so easy, they were fantastic. And maybe they can’t necessarily explain why they did what they did. But the game did not come easy to me.”
Hunter said he, Oates and assistant Calle Johansson are trying to treat their players the way they wanted to be treated in the same spots. Not having a career served up on a platter could help Oates now.
“I got benched. I got traded. I had success. I had failure where a lot of superstars don’t,” he said. “They’re good as soon as they come into the game, so they don’t know what it’s like to play on the fourth line. They don’t know what it’s like to sit for half a game and not play, to be sat out, to be healthy scratched, in and out. To not be drafted. Twice.”
In addition to being in so many situations, Oates sees five to 10 errors on every shift when most guys see one or two, Hunter said. And as an offensive playmaker, Oates saw the game quicker, too.
But Bylsma doesn’t view Oates as someone who can’t communicate what he sees.
“As a guy who journeyed the length of the hockey world to get to the next level, you kind of have to read teams and coaches and situations,” Bylsma said. “If you don’t, you probably don’t survive. That’s what I think I’ve brought.”
And what Bylsma thinks Oates brings as he builds his own coaching career.