Adam Oates once was an undrafted high school dropout working as a gas station attendant. In November, he'll be able to call himself an honored member of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I can't say I really thought it would happen," Oates, now the coach of the Washington Capitals, told NHL.com.
Not many would have 27 years ago, when Oates signed with the Detroit Red Wings after becoming a back-to-back All-America selection and NCAA champion at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He was a sought-after college free agent, but his entry into the National Hockey League wasn't smooth.
Oates bounced between the Red Wings and their American Hockey League affiliate in Adirondack during the 1985-86 season. It was a come-back-to-earth time for Oates, who dominated the college ranks and even scored a goal in his first NHL game, only to go the next 16 without a point.
"Humbling, frustrating," Oates said in describing his rookie season. "There's always a part of you that thinks it didn't have to be that way, but I didn't play good and our team was struggling. It was overwhelming a little bit. We're talking back in '85, when there was a lot of fighting in the game and I wasn't a fighter. It was tough and I had to figure out a niche to play.
"Going to the minors clears your head, makes you fight for it a little harder. It took a little while to get going, but I got into a groove."
Well, that's true -- if you call becoming one of the greatest passers in the history of a game simply a groove. Talk about downplaying a significant accomplishment.
"He mastered his craft," Brett Hull told NHL.com. "His ability to pass the puck and to see plays was very Gretzky-like."
Oates' 1,079 career assists are fourth-most by a center in NHL history, behind only Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis and Mark Messier -- all previously enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Oates is sixth all-time in assists (Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey -- a pair of Hall of Fame defenseman -- also have more), and 16th in points with 1,420.
He played in 1,337 career games -- 48th on the all-time list.
"I think by his second year in Detroit we saw his vision and patience with the puck, his creativity and playmaking ability really jumped out," Tampa Bay general manager and Hockey Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman told NHL.com. "He had great hands, great vision and great imagination on the ice. By Year 2, you could see that this guy had something special."
By Year 13, when Oates helped the Capitals reach the 1998 Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their history, there was no doubt about how special he was -- even if he was always the guy behind the goal scorer in pictures and headlines.
"This is the kind of [Hall of Fame] selection that makes your heart feel good and makes you proud of the guys who are making these decisions, because you realize they know what they're doing," Washington general manager George McPhee told NHL.com. "Adam Oates was a heck of a player -- a terrific player -- and I'm not sure enough people really realized how good he was. He was a very underrated player for many years, but there are enough people on that Hall of Fame committee that realized how good he was. It's gratifying. He deserves to be in there."
Oates credits his father, David, for his appreciation of the pass and his ability to hone that skill, to turn it into a science, with the NHL as his lab.
"My dad is British and he was a soccer player. He grew up watching this guy Stanley Matthews, who was a legend over there, a Gretzky over there," Oates said. "Our family story was you have to be like this guy and pass the puck, because if you learn to pass the puck, you learn to play the game and your teammates will like you. That's really how it started. I was a centerman, I started doing it and it really just evolved."
Oates attributed some of his success to the hours he spent "living with my stick" as a kid growing up in Markham, Ont., for the evolution of his skill. Oates points to his college coach, Mike Addesa, for teaching him the finer points of the game.
"He really made me a man in the sense to be dedicated," Oates said. "He took me to another level in knowledge of the game."
Oates also credits the players he skated with, including Hull and Cam Neely, two members of the exclusive 50-in-50 club (50 goals in 50 games), who accomplished the rare feat while playing with Oates and benefiting from his remarkable skill. Peter Bondra's only 50-goal season also came when he played alongside Oates, making him the only center to have played with three different 50-goal scorers.
Oates helped Hull have consecutive seasons of 72, 86 and 70 goals from 1989-92.
"Some people told me they think I could have had 1,000 goals if we stayed together," said Hull, who finished his Hall of Fame career with 741 goals. "Look at what he did with Cam Neely and Peter Bondra -- those guys scored just like I did. Obviously it proved that Adam had a heck of a lot to do with that."
Hull scored 50 goals in 49 games in 1990-91, then had 50 in 50 to start the 1991-92 season. Oates combined for 149 assists while playing in 115 games during those two seasons.
He was traded to Boston on Feb. 7, 1992, due to a difference in opinion with the organization regarding what he was worth contractually.
Hull never sniffed 70 goals again.
"We were 26 years old -- it was magic at that time," Oates said.
Oates actually put up better numbers in his first full season in Boston, registering a career-high 142 points in 1992-93. He had a League-high 97 assists -- and still regrets he never got to 100.
"I think Brett took me to another level as a player," Oates said. "He gave me confidence at another level and when I went to Boston I got a chance to play with Ray [Bourque], who also took me to another level defensively. We had a good team and I was gaining more confidence as a player."
One season later, Oates helped Neely score 50 goals while playing in only 49 games. Oates finished with 80 assists.
"You're talking about Gretzky and [Mario] Lemieux, players like that, and he's in that pantheon of the great all-time passers," McPhee said. "He was as good of a set-up guy that I ever had a chance to work with, and sometimes you don't realize how good players are until you work with them.
"You just realize, 'Wow, this is a terrific player.'"
The only terrific item missing from Oates' terrific resume is a Stanley Cup championship. He won't call it a regret, even though he can look back and reflect on how close he came as a player and even as an assistant coach just last season.
Oates thinks if the Blues didn't lose Scott Stevens in the early 1990s, they would have been able to win the Cup. He got to the Final with Washington in 1998 and again with Anaheim in 2003, but the Caps were swept by Detroit and the Ducks lost to New Jersey in seven games.
Oates was an assistant coach in New Jersey last season, but the Devils fell two wins shy of winning the Stanley Cup.
His personal quest for the Cup continues as the coach of the Capitals. He was hired by McPhee hours before he learned he would be going into the Hall.
"Obviously you're measured by that and of course you want to win a Cup, of course you do," Oates said, "but I can't say I lose sleep over it because I got to play 19 years in this League and that's pretty amazing."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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