There is little doubt as to the ultimate destination of crafty Capitals center Adam Oates. Unless the Hockey Hall of Fame Selection Committee suffers a severe, collective and simultaneous brain cramp, Oates will be enshrined in hockey’s hallowed Hall a few years after his playing days come to a close. What is far less certain is when the clock will actually begin ticking on that mandatory three-year waiting period. These days, Oates is making a second career of mocking Father Time.
The sturdy Washington pivot will celebrate his 40th birthday next August. At a similar age, some of the game’s greats had already retired, waited the three years and gained election into the Hall of Fame in Toronto. A recent example is former NHL center Dale Hawerchuk, who won the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie in 1982. Hawerchuk was enshrined into the Hall of Fame last fall, in his second year of eligibility. Hawerchuk, who turns 39 in April, is some 16 months younger than Oates.
As for Oates himself, the venerable center has shown no signs of slowing down. Last season, he shared the league lead in assists with now-teammate Jaromir Jagr and became the oldest player in NHL history to lead the league in that category. Although Oates sputtered somewhat down the stretch and into the playoffs last season, he has rebounded and is again pacing the league in assists in 2001-02. With 51 assists three-quarters of the way through the regular season, Oates holds an eight-helper advantage over Philadelphia’s Jeremy Roenick. Oates’s total of 62 points places him in a tie for fourth in the league’s scoring race, just 10 points off the top of the list.
It’s conceivable that Oates could crack the league’s top 10 in scoring for the first time since he tied for 10th in the NHL with 53 points in the lockout-abbreviated 1994-95 campaign. That was the sixth straight season that Oates was found among the league’s top 10 scorers.
Oates also etched his name into an elite pantheon of playmakers earlier this season when he recorded the 1,000th assist of his NHL career. In doing so, he joined a short list of just seven other skaters to achieve the feat. Oates has also cracked the league’s all-time Top 20 scoring list. With 1,341 career points, Oates is a dozen points behind Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur for 17th place on the NHL’s all-time scoring ledger.
When Oates came into the National Hockey League some 17 years ago, he had something to prove. Passed over in the major-junior draft in his native Canada, he chose to attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.
Oates’s pinpoint passing skills at RPI were enough to overcome the rap that he was too small and too slow. In his last year at RPI, Oates registered 31 goals and 91 points in 38 games. He was a first team ECAC All-Star and he led the Engineers to an NCAA Championship. Suddenly, the scouts were taking notice and a bidding frenzy broke out for the services of the slick center.
In the summer of 1985, several NHL clubs openly courted the 23-year-old center. The Washington Capitals were among those teams, but Oates opted to ink a deal with the Detroit Red Wings, a long-moribund Original Six franchise that was finally beginning to show signs of life again. Oates figured he’d get a better chance of carving out a career for himself with a team that was starving for talent.
It took very little time for him to make an impression. Oates first pulled on the winged-wheel sweater on October 10, 1985.
“It was my first NHL game,” he recalls. “Every kid’s dream who plays the sport is to play in the NHL. My first game was in Detroit and it was great because my family was there. In the second period, I scored the [team’s] first goal of the season. It was a rebound and I just banged it in. It was pretty cool back then. A couple of shifts later, I set up John Ogrodnick for a breakaway and he scored. So you think, ‘Wow, this game is going to be easy!’ And then I think I went 25 games without a point and was sent back to the minors. It was kind of an auspicious start, that’s for sure.”
Oates played well at AHL Adirondack and eventually made his way back to the Wings that season. He totaled 47 points as a sophomore in 1986-87 but it took an act of fate to give his career the push it needed.
“I didn’t have the best start,” admits Oates of the early days of his NHL career. “My first year and a half, I really struggled a little bit, right? And then Stevie got hurt.”
On March 1, 1988, Red Wings center and team captain Steve Yzerman underwent surgery to repair torn ligaments in his right knee. At the time of the injury, Yzerman had 50 goals and 102 points in just 64 games. The playoffs were just around the corner. After 14 straight losing seasons, the Wings were leading the Norris Division and were on the verge of rejoining the NHL’s elite teams. The injury to the team’s leading scorer opened up a spot for Oates on the top line.
“It was about a month before the playoffs,” Oates recollects, “and my minutes went up because of that. My minutes went up and I got more responsibility, more power play time and I had a good playoff. I got some attention with that.”
Oates finished the season strong and then put up 20 points in 16 playoff games as the Wings advanced to the Conference Finals. He had arrived.
He totaled more than a point a game for the first time in his career in 1988-89, and then came the first trade of his career. A June 15, 1989 swap sent Oates and Paul MacLean to St. Louis for Tony McKegney and popular Blues center Bernie Federko.
“I was very surprised,” Oates says of going to the Blues. “ I think your first trade is a little bit more devastating than the next. I really loved Detroit.”
It didn’t take long for Oates to love St. Louis, though. He spent two full seasons and the better part of a third in St. Louis. During that span, he piled up 228 assists in 195 games. Oddly enough, Hull scored exactly 228 goals in those three seasons and led the NHL in goals in each of those campaigns. Prior to Oates’ arrival in St. Louis, Hull had never scored more than 41 goals in a season. Since Oates’ departure, Hull hasn’t scored more than 57.
“It was special because we had a solid team and we were two guys who really knew each other as people and as players,” Oates says of his days with Hull and the Blues. “They were by far the best hockey years of my life.”
When asked about the greatest personal achievement he has witnessed over the course of his career, Oates doesn’t hesitate.
“I think Hullie’s 86 goals – by far – is the best thing I’ve ever seen as a player,” he states. “He had no empty nets, no shorthanded [goals] and no four-goal games. It was a team that didn’t score a lot of goals. We’d win 3-2 every night and he’d get one or two. It was awesome. He was awesome.
“You’ve got to remember that teams would shadow him and have him covered. I can remember we played in Winnipeg. I think Hullie scored one and they tied us three-all. John Paddock was the [Winnipeg] coach and after the game he said, ‘We shut him down.’ Hullie had 17 shots! So [Hull] goes, ‘Shut me down? I had 17 shots! How is that shutting me down?
“It was such a fun year. Our team did very well. Scott Stevens was on our blue line and he was awesome. Just awesome. We had a very similar identity to what we had [in Washington] last year where every night we felt like we were going to win. It was like last year with our power play kind of thing: ‘Hullie is going to score.’ It was great.
“Cam [Neely]’s 50 [goals] in 44 [games] is unbelievable too, but Hullie did it twice – 50 in 50. So for me, I’ve been lucky playing with two guys who have had 50 in 50.”
Mired in a contract dispute with the Blues, Oates was dealt to Boston in the middle of the 1991-92 campaign. His first season with the Bruins was his best overall. Asked by coach Brian Sutter – who also coached Oates in St. Louis – to stand in front of the net, Oates complied. He was rewarded with a 45-goal season, by far his career high. He also led the NHL with 97 assists and finished third in the scoring race behind Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux and Buffalo’s Pat Lafontaine.
In February of 1997, Oates spoke out publicly about his dissatisfaction with the organization’s longstanding policy of penuriousness in regards to player salaries. Bruins goaltender Bill Ranford had missed the start of that season because of a contract dispute and defenseman Raymond Bourque’s contract was headed toward expiration at the team. Boston management stripped Oates of the alternate captain’s “A” in the wake of his comments, but his teammates were united in their support of him. They stated that Oates did not need a letter to lead.
Given his inflammatory remarks, it was just a matter of time before Oates became a former Bruin. On March 1, 1997, he came to DC in a six-player swap with Boston. He has now played more games with the Capitals than any of the other three clubs he has skated for.
“You know, it’s funny,” he says when asked which of his four NHL teams he feels most closely identified with. “Maybe a year from now, if I’m still here and you ask me that, my answer might be different. But I’ve been very lucky. I’ve got a little piece of me with every team.”
Given his continued excellence over the better part of two decades, how long does Oates plan to play the game that has consumed him since before he was old enough to go to school?
“Until I can’t,” he says simply.
Don’t hold your breath.
He still plays a solid and consistent game at both ends of the ice and is averaging better than 22 minutes a night, more ice time than he saw last season. Oates has not gone more than three games without a point this season and suffered the three-game drought in the campaign’s first week.
Oates sees excellence in other areas of physical endeavor at advanced ages and sees no reason why he can’t continue to be a productive NHLer for another year or two.
“In sports, the age [of effectiveness/retirement] is going up in every single sport,” he states firmly. “I just read today that some 38-year-old woman set a new world record in something. It’s hard for some of these guys to think that you can still do it. But then I just read where the Boston Bruins asked Ray Bourque to [come out of retirement and] play for them. I’ve been waiting for that, actually. I heard [Wayne] Gretzky is skating Phoenix. I’ll bet you he is testing himself.”
Could Oates see himself sticking around as a role player for a few seasons, playing on special teams and taking key faceoffs?
“It depends on the coach and the role, but [in theory] absolutely,” he says. “I love the game and I love the science of it and as you get older you learn more about the game. I don’t see why two years from now we can’t be sitting here and I can still play [significant] minutes and play power play, take faceoffs and that. Because if you can keep your legs … We all play in the East[ern Conference]. Peter Bondra is the fastest player in the world, but how many breakaways has he had this year? Everybody plays the trap, so you don’t have to be fast, you have to be quick. That’s all you’ve got to be.
“I think we’re finding that we can prolong it. The guy who won the triathlon this year was 44 years old. He won it. He beat the 20-year-olds. Athletes are getting better in every single sport and they’re getting older in every single sport. You can fight Father Time a little bit. I think definitely in our conference versus the other one, for sure. You can hide skating weaknesses. That’s the weakness, there is no other weakness. It’s your legs that are going to go. Your hands don’t.”
For the last several summers, Oates has been diligent about doing his part to maintain his fitness over the offseason.
“I train hard,” he says proudly. “I’ve had a personal trainer the last five or six years. He’s an excellent trainer. We do the exact same things Frank [Costello] does and every trainer does. He’s up to date. And I work out with two hockey guys and train pretty hard. I take care of myself.
“I think what happens to a lot of older guys is that they lose the desire to put the time in. I’m single. A lot of guys have kids and they get older and have more responsibilities. I still live the single man’s life. Like [Mark] Mess[ier]. Mess is a good example because he’s single and he still has a blast. You don’t have three kids that you have to think about and spend time with and take time away from your time.”
Oates is not wearing the captain’s “C” anymore – again, it was his verbal honesty that led to it being stripped last summer – but he’s still not reluctant to give useful advice to the team’s budding prospects. When Oates was coming up with the Wings, veteran Billy Carroll took him under his wing and helped show him the NHL ropes. Oates is keeping the tradition going.
Earlier this season, winger Mike Farrell was called up to Washington for a brief taste of NHL action. Upon returning to AHL Portland, he told a local reporter that Oates and left wing Chris Simon were particularly helpful in helping him adjust to NHL life.
“You’re not trying to be a coach and you’re not trying to hurt somebody’s feelings,” Oates says. “But sometimes if you see something in a young guy, if you do it constructively, it will help. That’s the whole purpose, when you see little things that add up. I was telling J.F. [Fortin] the other day about playing a 2-on-1, what I see as a forward. [I told him] ‘Don’t make it easy on me,’ and how, and hopefully that’ll sink in at some point and he’ll appreciate it. That’s the goal. I appreciated it when Billy Carroll helped me with little things.
“It’s all in the delivery and it’s really how I approach him. Nobody likes to be told what to do. We all know that. That’s not how it’s meant. I never took it that way from someone so hopefully guys won’t take it from me that way.”
Oates has played with a lot of great players and has played under several coaches in his many NHL campaigns. Some of them stand out for special notice as he reflects on the years gone by.
“I think for me, it’s been a little bit of everybody,” he replies when asked which NHL coach and teammate has had the biggest influence on him. “I’ve been lucky because I’ve almost been in every city the same amount of time, so there’s been somebody in every city. Brian Sutter coached me with two teams [St. Louis and Boston] and I got along great with him. And really because in St. Louis I got my chance to become an NHL regular and he gave me that chance. So my heart is always with Brian for that.
“I’ve had good success here with Wils, and I appreciate all that’s happened here because of that. He treats me like a veteran; he treats me great in terms of days off and with respect, so it’s great. I really appreciate that because not all coaches do that. But with Brian – he was the first guy to really give me a chance. Plus I have special memories of St. Louis and I have Brian – I think – to thank for that. But every team – like when I played for Detroit, Stevie [Yzerman] was the guy. He was younger than me, but he’s your star. Then I go to St. Louis and get Hullie and go to Boston and I’ve got [Raymond] Bourquie and Cam [Neely]. I come here and I’ve got Olie. So you develop friendships and certain identities, you know?”
Throughout his career, he’s shown uncanny vision on the ice, seeing things that few others do. You can’t help but think that could translate into a future career behind a bench or in a front office.
“You can never really say, because you never know what comes down the pike,” he says when asked if he plans on being involved in the game after he finally does retire. “But if something came down the pike, yeah. I’d like to think I could give something back to the game, sure.
“Coaching, management – let’s see what the offers are. But the one thing is that I wouldn’t want to do something in the minors. I’m very spoiled in the NHL and it would be tough to go ride a bus.”
Oates admits that he’d like to win the Stanley Cup, but he says he’s not interested in doing so as a rent-a-player.
“It’s important, but if it doesn’t happen it doesn’t happen,” he shrugs. “The one thing I don’t want to be is a rent-a-player. I would rather finish here and not win it and the team wins it the next year. So even though you’re not on that team, you’ve been a part of the 20 guys. They all know you. You’ve played with them, you’ve bled with them. Going to a team down the stretch and playing with them one month and winning the Cup, that means nothing to me. Everybody is different.”
He’ll leave it to his body to tell him when it’s time to quit. And the way Oates sees it, he’s got at least two more seasons left after this one.
Where he fits in with Washington’s organizational scheme is anyone’s guess at this point. The Caps are very thin at center, but have also stated clearly their plans to make the club younger on the ice. If Washington tumbles to playoff neverland between now and the March 19 trading deadline, Oates could have his ticket punched for another NHL destination.
On the other hand, the way he has played this season – especially since the end of the All-Star break – you’d have to think he figures in Washington’s immediate plans: making the playoffs and winning a round or two. His future in DC hinges on what happens in the standings over the next couple of weeks.
His contract expires at the close of this season and he will be an unrestricted free agent come July 1. Where he will play next season is anyone’s guess at this point, but you can bet that he’ll be out on the ice next fall winning faceoffs, killing penalties and making tape-to-tape passes that will lead to scoring chances and goals.
Oates came into this league with a need to prove that he wasn’t too small and too slow. Despite carving out a Hall of Fame resume, he still needs to prove to the 30 GMs around the NHL that he can still play the game. Oates is simultaneously philosophical and defiant when he’s confronted with this reality.
“I know it,” he allows. “Do I understand it? Yes and no. I understand it, yeah. But I’m still playing 20 minutes a game. So if I slow down, what is that, 15? I could still be productive.”
Oates was never the game’s swiftest skater, but he remains a step or two ahead of Father Time.