“I was kind of a punk,” Oates said, and there are a couple of points from his youth in Toronto in which, had he taken another path, who knows what might have happened? He didn’t always listen. He dropped out of school to pursue hockey.
“You like to say you would’ve landed on your feet,” he said. “But you don’t know.”
A record-setting junior lacrosse player, Oates wasn’t necessarily a hockey star, and might not have played college hockey in the United States had Mike Addesa, the coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., not appealed an eligibility issue to the NCAA to get him cleared to play. (He had played one game, without receiving pay, for a professional junior team.) “Without that scholarship, I’m done,” Oates said.
He arrived on campus with few accomplishments — a scoring title in Ontario’s less-competitive Junior “B” level — but with a cockiness anyway. “I think he was actually looking for direction,” said Eric Magnuson, a junior at RPI when Oates matriculated as a freshman. He found it in Addesa, a disciplinarian with a temper who more than one former player has referred to as the Bobby Knight of college hockey.
“Once I went to RPI,” Oates said, “I flipped the switch. I’m never going back.”
His teammates and coaches at RPI soon realized what they had in their freshman center. There were reasons Oates wasn’t drafted from juniors. He wasn’t a particularly fast skater. He wasn’t overly powerful.
“When I first saw him, he was a little bit disheveled,” said Magnuson, Oates’s best friend to this day. “I looked at him and said, ‘Really?’ ” But when the RPI captains held practices that fall, without coaches, “he’d have two goals and three assists, and you never really saw him,” Magnuson said. “He’s one of those invisible players. But God, was he productive.”
By his sophomore year, Addesa was so impressed with Oates’s acumen that he began asking Oates about strategy. The results led directly to a career Oates believes he would never have had without Addesa: 83 points in 38 games as a sophomore, 91 points in 38 games as a junior, when the Engineers won the 1985 national championship. That spring, he signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings. The next season, he made his NHL debut. And four years later came the move that shaped the rest of his career.
“When I got traded, it hurt,” Oates said. “It hardened me.”
It was June 1989. Oates was 26 and coming off his best season to date, the first of 10 in which he averaged more than a point per game. The Red Wings sent him to St. Louis in a four-player trade. Thus began one of the defining traits of Oates’s life: transition.