TORONTO — Don’t misunderstand Adam Oates. Sure, he enjoyed scoring goals, but he didn’t value it above everything else he could do on the ice.
Taught by his father to put a premium on unselfish play and to relish the impact he could have on the game as a passer, Oates carried those tenets with him, all the way to the NHL.
Monday night his place as one of the most skilled playmakers of all-time was secured as he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Mats Sundin, Joe Sakic and Pavel Bure.
It’s a recognition that prompted Oates, 50, to examine every memory of his career and the contributions of every family member, friend, coach and teammate he had. In his induction speech, Oates made sure to thank as many of them as possible, naming 34 individuals who left their mark on him.
“I can’t think of any better honor than being grouped with some of the people that you think are special in the game, that you try to raise your game to play against every single night,” said Oates, who was named head coach of the Washington Capitals on the same day he received the call to the Hall.
“Since that day, I’ve spent a lot of time doing what almost everybody, I’m sure, who has been inducted has done,” Oates said. “You reflect on your career. 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. Today’s the day of all days I think I should say thank you.”
Over nearly two decades on seven teams, Oates recorded 1,420 points and 1,079 assists — 16th and sixth best in NHL history, respectively — and became the only center to feed three 50-goal scorers.
He rarely received the same acclaim or appreciation as those who finished his plays by firing the puck into the back of the net, but that never bothered him.
“I was okay with it. I was always okay with it,” Oates said. “I enjoyed my role. I enjoyed the way I played. I enjoyed being a centerman, getting everybody else involved and being that support guy.
“It wasn’t always about points growing up, it was about playing correctly,” Oates said, recalling words of advice from his father, David. “‘If you play correctly, your skills will show.’ No matter who I played with, I approached it the same way. I still view the game that way, as simple as it sounds.”
Oates began his NHL career in Detroit, but it was in St. Louis where the Weston, Ontario, native first found tremendous success, thanks to his chemistry with Brett Hull.
The connection between Hull and Oates was immediate, on and off the ice. They roomed together on the road, talked hockey constantly, could anticipate the other’s movements and took great joy in tormenting opposing defenses.
“We were kindred spirits,” Hull said. “Nothing ever was as easy as it was with Adam. It was a walk in the park every night because of the way he saw the game, his skill set. We would go to games together just drooling, waiting to get on the ice because of the things we knew we could accomplish. . . . The most disappointing thing for me in my career is not being able to finish it playing with Adam.”
The duo lasted only parts of three seasons as St. Louis traded Oates to Boston because of a contract dispute. For the 195 regular season games he was with the Blues, though, Oates recorded a staggering 286 points (228 assists), while Hull notched 212 goals and joined an exclusive club of players who recorded 50 goals in 50 games in both 1990-91 and 1991-92.
Oates still has trouble believing how brief his time was in St. Louis.
“In my mind, playing with Brett was forever,” Oates said. “But then, I think, ‘Wait a minute, it was only three years? No way. It was my career.’ Brett is on my mind like he’s my career. It was three years of unreal play. He put me on the map, he did.”
In Boston, Oates helped Cam Neely join the 50-goals-in-50-games club and developed his defensive game while taking cues from Ray Bourque.
“He had that knack of knowing where everyone was, being one play ahead of everyone else, and then making the perfect pass,” Neely told the Boston Globe.
A blockbuster, six-player trade sent him to Washington in February 1997, where he averaged just less than a point per game during 387 regular season contests, helping Peter Bondra hit the 50-goal plateau in the 1997-98 season.
While Oates never received top billing as his teammates on the wing piled up goals and personal accolades, their success can be partially attributed to their time playing with him.
“Not everyone can play with an Adam Oates,” Hull said. “You had to understand where to go, how to do it. There’s a timing about the whole thing and it was not up to Adam to change to us. It was for us to change to him, because we were the canvas and he was the Picasso.”