“If you really forced me, I’d probably say Boston,” says Oates, when asked which of his former teams he most identifies with. But he has good feeling for every stop on the tour. “A lot of good things happened to me wherever I went.”
Oates’ first stop was in Detroit. He signed a free agent deal with the Red Wings in 1985-86 and spent the first four seasons of his NHL career there.
As is the case with most players, the first trade of his career – the one that sent him from Detroit to St. Louis in exchange for future Hall of Famer Bernie Federko – is the one that stung the most.
“It hit me the hardest,” Oates recalls. “Because we just lost to Edmonton two years in a row in the semifinals and I was a part of it. I thought, ‘I’m young, Steve Yzerman is young. We can play against [Wayne Gretzky] and [Mark Messier] and we’ll grow as a franchise.’
“I thought I was coming into my own and I was comfortable playing behind Stevie. And they just made a trade. They thought they needed more veteran presence. Okay. And it turned out to be a blessing for me because I got to play with Brett [Hull].”
Two and a half seasons in St. Louis setting up prolific sniper Hull “put me on the map,” says Oates.
Always outspoken during his playing days, Oates wasn’t one to remain silent if he felt he was being treated unjustly. It’s likely one of the reasons he moved around as much as he did, and it’s the primary reason he was dealt from St. Louis to Boston on Feb. 7, 1992. Oates believed he was worth more than the Blues were willing to pay him, and off he went to the Bruins.
Would he have played it differently with the benefit of hindsight?
“Possibly,” says Oates. “But I think the situations were different, too. People don’t realize that back then financial issues affected a lot of decisions with teams and the league. A lot of decisions.
“In hindsight, no. Brett gets a raise to $2 million. I feel I should be next on the list, and they bring a guy [Brendan Shanahan] in and give him a million dollars. Well, I should make more than a million. They said, ‘no.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’ll see you later.’”
Perhaps somewhat inadvertently, the Blues ended up dismantling a pretty good hockey team. They signed restricted free agent Scott Stevens to a five-year deal, poaching him from the Capitals with a lucrative deal. But a year later, they lost Stevens when they were forced to turn him over to the Devils as compensation for another free agent they signed, Shanahan. Their willingness to pay Shanahan more than Oates cost them the services of the center.
Oates believes the decision cost him something, too.
“That cost me a Cup,” he says. “People say, ‘You never won a Cup.’ Yeah, but that cost me a Cup. We had no money. We had Scotty [Stevens], we finished second overall. We were all the same age. I was the oldest; I was older than Scotty and Brett. I was 27. We could have had a 10-year run. Cujo [Goaltender Curtis Joseph] was in the minors; we had Rod Brind’Amour, Jeff Brown. We all liked each other. It was close, it was very close.”
In Boston, Oates became close with Cam Neely and Raymond Bourque. He also began the practice of shaving the ends off the blade of his barely curved wooden sticks. There was a myth circulating in those days that Oates did so because he got a bad batch of sticks and had to cut some of the blade off in order to more closely replicate his own stick pattern. As it turns out, that myth was a cover-up.
“I had a normal stick most of my career,” Oates related. “Then when I played for Boston about halfway through my career, I had hand surgery. I hurt my hand. They took a tendon out of my wrist and put it in my finger. That summer when I was rehabbing it and starting to train again, I didn’t have the mobility I used to have in the fingers of my right hand.
“I ended up cutting my blade down that summer to get the mobility in my backhand. And I just never told anybody that. I ended up having that shorter blade and everybody wondered why. I said, ‘It’s just a habit.’ But it was really to save my finger. I let everyone believe the other story because I didn’t want to bring attention to my finger.”
Oates’ last two stops were out in the Western Conference, with Anaheim and Edmonton. He has fond memories of his days with the Ducks, which culminated in his second trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2003.
“When I played for Anaheim, I was in the last few years of my career,” he says. “You know you’re winding down, but I still felt like I was contributing. I was really focused on conditioning. I didn’t want to be the old guy that sits in the wheelchair; I wasn’t going to let them retire me because of that.
“In the second half of the year, I had a good second half. I played with Paul Kariya and Petr Sykora and we had a good second half. Our line played very well and had a good playoff. So I felt like I contributed. I still felt like I was part of it.”
Edmonton was Oates’ final stop; he signed with the Oilers well after the start of the 2003-04 season, at a point where he believed his career might have already been over. In hindsight, Oates wishes things had gone differently before that signing. He believes if they had, his career might have been prolonged.
“Edmonton, I screwed up,” he admits. “Anaheim didn’t bring me back. We lost in Game 7 of the final. And I was like, ‘How could they not bring me back?’ We went to Game 7 of the final and I led the team in scoring in the playoffs. So I figured, ‘Well, I guess it’s over.’ So I didn’t train that summer. And then I missed [training] camp.
“So I’m 40 years old, and all of a sudden Edmonton calls [in November]. I remember being on the phone with [Oilers general manager] Kevin Lowe and [head coach] Craig MacTavish and I said, ‘Guys, I’m out of shape.’ They said, ‘Well, we’ll get you in shape.’ And in the back of my mind I knew, ‘You can’t do that, you can’t catch up.’ Not at 40. Not only did I miss camp, but I missed my training before camp.
“I knew it. I never played my best hockey for Edmonton at all, and it bummed me out because they showed good faith with me. I tried, it’s not like I didn’t try. But I wish it didn’t end like that in a sense because I still feel like I had more good hockey to give than I gave to them.”
Then came the lockout that killed the 2004-05 season, and with it, Oates’ career. I asked him whether he believes that had he trained in the summer of 2003 and not missed training camp prior to his season with the Oilers, and if there hadn’t been a lockout (I know, that’s a lot of “ifs”), that he would have been able to continue as a productive NHL player as a 42-year-old in 2004-05.
“I think I could have had a productive season for Edmonton, yes I do,” Oates answers. “I think the year I played for them I didn’t, so it ended it for me. But if they had signed me that summer right away after the season before, I would have trained and I would have had camp and I feel like I would have had a productive year. Two years before I was sixth in the league in scoring. It doesn’t fall that fast. I still would have played well for Edmonton.
“Who knows? I might have retired anyway, but I wish I had just retired for Edmonton after having played better hockey for them.”