“Right now, we’re sitting by the phone hoping something’s going to happen,” Oates said this past week. His mind, though, is not one to be idle, so he goes to the Capitals’ Arlington training facility, watches video with his fellow coaches, tries to talk the game that he’s willing to talk, according to General Manager George McPhee, “24 hours a day.” But the NHL’s owners have locked out their players, and there is no telling when his career will actually begin.
So this immersion into Washington’s sports scene is, by no fault of his own, difficult. It was difficult 15 years ago, too, when Oates was traded from the Boston Bruins to Washington, held out when he arrived in midseason, then initiated a contract squabble in the summer.
He seems a quiet man, 50 now, his T-square of a jaw and a scar under his lower lip making him look like nothing other than a hockey lifer. As of last month, he is a Hall of Famer, even as he filled the NHL void by helping coach the Capitals’ top minor league affiliate for six weeks. And up until now, he rarely met a transitional period that he couldn’t make tumultuous. Not with sinister intent. But he is always evaluating situations — his own, his team’s, the league’s. And that leads to conclusions, conclusions he has little trouble disclosing.
“If it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and I say it,” Oates said last month. “Sometimes to a fault, I say it. I’m mouthy in a different way, sometimes.”
In a playing career that lasted 19 seasons, Oates was traded four times and pulled on the sweaters of seven franchises. He knows management — good and bad — and what a lack of communication can do to a player and a team. Because he isn’t approaching his 31st game as a coach, but still awaits his first, the Capitals and their fans don’t yet know his style for sure. But it won’t be to bottle up candor, even if it stays in the dressing room between player and coach, even if it is delivered with a whisper rather than a scream.
“When you say something, you got to back it up,” Oates said. “It’s weird, because I’m a guy that really respects authority, chain of command, structure. I do. I’m one of those guys.”
We should be learning, right now, about how those opposite pulls — an outspoken company man? — play out as the leader of a hockey team. Instead, Oates’s past — as one of history’s most prolific and savvy playmakers, as one of its most analytic minds and, simultaneously, one of its most willing cage rattlers — will have to serve as a predictor for his future as a head coach, whenever that future might start.
‘I flipped the switch’
“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.
Oates did not yet know of the magic he would make with Brett Hull with the Blues, the back-to-back seasons with a total of 217 points. What he knew was how the move scarred him.
“From then on, it’s business,” Oates said. “Yeah, we can talk cliches all we want. ‘We’re gonna win for the ‘Blue Note’ and all that. And yep, I played 100 percent. But it’s still business. Until you’ve been traded, you don’t know what it’s like on the other side.”
Oates started to examine the financial side of the game. Hull, who scored 72 goals in 1989-90 and 86 more in 1990-91 — the third- and ninth-highest totals of all-time, so many of them off Oates’s passes — was understandably the highest-paid Blue. Oates had signed a four-year, $3.2 million deal, and in the meantime the Blues paid two players, Brendan Shanahan and Garth Butcher, more. Oates not only felt that was unfair, but believed it didn’t offer assurances if his career was over in his early 30s, as many were back then.
“I could be retired in five years,” Oates said. “I don’t own my house.”
So Oates did what so many athletes have done before and since. “I have to do what’s best for Adam Oates and his family,” he said in February 1992, even as he was single and — as he is now — without children. By that time, the situation had spilled onto the ice, with Coach Brian Sutter occasionally taking Oates off Hull’s line. He engaged in frank discussions with fans on his situation, asking a teacher on a call-in radio show if she would turn down an offer from the school across the street to double her salary. “Of course not!” he said. Later that month, the Blues met Oates’s demand and dealt him to Boston, which restructured his contract.
“Maybe the fact of how he ended up playing in the National Hockey League factored in,” said Cam Neely, who became a teammate of Oates with the Bruins. “Maybe saying, to a degree, that he’s proving people wrong. It’s easy to sit back and listen to people say, ‘You can’t do this or that. Go off into the sunset.’ Or you can say, ‘I can do this. I’ll show you.’ ”
It was not terribly different after Oates played parts of six seasons with the Bruins. He became a member of the team’s axis with Neely and defenseman Ray Bourque — both Hall of Famers — but grew unhappy with the direction of the franchise. Neely was benched one game — forced to sit, in uniform, but not play — a move backed by management. Oates watched Bourque compete every night despite debilitating injuries. He considered it all unjust, and again, he wasn’t happy with his contract.
“I’m like, ‘Pay me,’ ” Oates said. “ ‘No.’ ‘Well, then, I wanted to be traded.’ ‘[Expletive] you.’ What’s a player’s option then? You got to mouth off to the press. You got to force the issue.”
So Oates did, telling the Boston papers that the franchise wasn’t treating the fan base well. That set the foundation for the trade that sent him to Washington, where he initially refused to report. Yet his squabbles, he said, never affected his play on the ice. “I could separate it,” he said. “I really could.” Teammates and opponents alike second that opinion.
“The interesting thing about Adam that I thought really separated him from a lot of players was how mentally focused he was,” said McPhee, who inherited Oates’s sticky situation from David Poile, who was fired as Capitals general manager after the 1996-97 season. “He never made mental mistakes. He always seemed to make the right play, or an even better play than you expected.”
It all has something to do with the way he processes information, quickly and surely. That could be, in a previous life, playing the puck off the half-boards before laying it into the perfect spot — not just to a body, but right side for a right-handed shooter, left side for a lefty — to set up a goal. It could be now, as he prepares to combine his past as an outspoken player with his present as a leader of all types of personalities and abilities.
“I believe in communication,” Oates said. “I can’t be a hypocrite. I don’t want to be a hypocrite as a coach. For example, we have a work stoppage. It happens. It happened this summer to the teachers in Chicago. It’s life.
“If one of my players has a situation, I will talk to him about, ‘It’s your situation. As long as you show up for work, and you can separate it, great. If you need someone to talk to, I’m here. But it’s your business.’ ”
That, Oates knows well, is the business of hockey. But when he retired, he didn’t expect hockey to be his business anymore.
“I asked my wife,” Oates said, “ ‘Can I have two years to see how good I can become as a golfer?’ ”
When Oates retired from hockey in 2004, he was 41, and his right knee was sore. Twice he had torn the abdominal muscles on his right side. Doctors had taken a tendon from his wrist and put it in his right index finger, and though the surgical solution offered function, pain still shot all the way to his shoulder.
But he loved golf. As a Red Wing, he had befriended fellow Canadian Mike Weir, who went on to win the 2003 Masters. Once he retired, though, this was not a casual relationship with an avocation. “He was on that range for 12 hours a day,” Magnuson said.
As he worked near his home in Palm Springs, Calif., the goal was to play competitively as a pro. But Oates began thinking about golf differently. He had to adapt to playing with all his ailments, so he learned about the body. He then explored how the body relates to the golf swing. After maybe 18 months, he knew he wouldn’t be good enough to be a professional player, but he understood enough about the swing to offer advice to even elite pros.
“He’s got a great knowledge of stuff, but he’s not a guy who forces it on you. He’s very analytical, but it’s almost as much about feel — how it feels to you on the golf course or on the ice,” PGA Tour veteran Brett Quigley said. “Golf-wise, I’d equate him to half Nick Faldo,” the Englishman known for his metronome of a swing, “and half Seve Ballesteros,” the flashy and creative Spaniard.
Over the past five years, Oates and Quigley have grown close — to the point that, more than a dozen times, Oates has caddied for Quigley on tour. He made his debut in 2010 in New Orleans, tracking the wind, talking Quigley into one club or another. He has focused the chatty Quigley on the practice range, and along the way experienced things completely foreign from hockey. One Sunday at Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial tournament outside Columbus, Ohio, Quigley was near the top of the leader board, playing with Australian Adam Scott. Oates walked onto the first tee, surrounded by fans, uncertain even about opening a bottle of water lest he make too much noise.
“I had to put my shades on I was so nervous,” Oates said. “It’s such a cool thing for me because hockey is all noise. Golf is silent. The silence is incredible. It’s really cool for me to concentrate differently.”
Ostensibly, Oates will eventually have to concentrate as a head coach. When he interviewed for the Capitals job in June at the NHL draft in Pittsburgh, McPhee remembers thinking, about 10 minutes into a session that lasted a few hours, “Wow. I think we’ve got our guy.”
The Capitals have him now. When that matters, nobody knows. He tries to do something regarding his new job every day, watching video or going over potential strategy. But you want his opinion on the lockout? “I’m not trying to solve it,” he said.
Even with no hockey, he has other issues to analyze, because his mind just works that way. That, then, is what we know about Adam Oates, even before he coaches a game.
“I’ve always been a guy,” he said, “who’s thinking.”