Success in pro sports being so star-driven, Adam Oates had no misconceptions when he got the job. If the Washington Capitals were ever truly going to be part of the Stanley Cup conversation again, if hockey was going to still matter in Washington — if Oates was going to last in his first NHL head coaching job — he knew he had to find a way to develop what Dale Hunter could not and Bruce Boudreau lost: an authentic connection with Alex Ovechkin.
“It’s not all about winning at this level — anybody that says that is a liar,” Oates said. “It is about winning, but everybody has to do their job and win.”
Animated now, pointing to the Ovechkin name magnet on the white acrylic roster board inside his office at the team’s practice facility Wednesday afternoon, the Caps’ coach explains:
“If the Lakers win, Kobe Bryant has got to get 30 [expletive] shots, right? We’re all big boys. We know that. Kobe can’t get 40 shots and you lose by 20. That can’t happen, either. Phil Jackson was great at that. He handled that, making this guy understand you’re going to get your points, but I need you to do this as well because we are going to win. Now everybody’s happy. So I kind of want to go down that path with Ovi.”
A mere month after he couldn’t find the net and was verbally pounded by the NHL’s gatekeepers, Ovechkin has successfully moved to the right wing under Oates’s patient guidance and somehow recaptured the hottest stick in the NHL, with a league-leading 26 goals entering Thursday night’s Carolina game.
Oates has psychologically found Ovechkin, who now fully acknowledges he wasn’t a happy camper under Hunter.
“Last couple years, I score goals, but nobody give attention to it, you know,” Ovechkin said. “Everybody look at only bad ways what I did. Everybody try to find my mistakes on the ice. But when I talk to Oatsie, and he told me good thing about what I did last year, it’s give me more energy than I used to have with ‘Hunts.’
“Yeah, it’s not a secret I don’t have that kind of relationship with last coach,” he adds. “[Oates] give me chance to show who I am on the ice. And I’m going to use it how many times ever I can. When I have the trust, I have to use the trust.”
Oates, named to the Hockey Hall of Fame the day he got the Caps job, gained it with a simple premise: He had no illusions of who people now pay to see.
“I’m not going to try to come in here and be bigger than him,” he said. “No way. We’re not going to win without him. We’re not. Not big picture.”
Even after Ovechkin was moved to the right side of the ice — the thought was he had become too one-dimensional, barreling down the left side, moving to the center and rearing back for his supersonic right-hand wrist shot that even Jose Theodore saw coming — Oates allowed him to go back to the left side for four games. He then showed Ovechkin video of Ilya Kovalchuk, whom Oates worked with as a New Jersey assistant and who also moved from left to right wing. They talked and joked often — about everything.
Whatever walls Ovechkin had erected concerning his direct supervisor being unable to communicate directly with him soon crumbled.
“He sees the personal side,” Ovechkin said of Oates. “He give me lots of attention. We look at the video, we look at everything to help my game grow. Especially when he move me to right side. It was pretty hard time, but now I get used to it.
“Look at the video this year and look at the video last year. If I have 5 or 10 touches in the game last year, it will be nice. But right now I have, like, more than that, almost double [the touches]. That’s why I have confidence. That’s why I feel the puck more, that’s why I feel the puck when I have to shoot and when I don’t have to shoot.”
Ovechkin said he doesn’t harbor resentment toward Hunter, whose decision to leave Washington after less than one season and return to his junior team in London, Ontario, was apparently his own.
“He talk with different players, but I was not in his favorite side,” Ovechkin said. “I’m not mad at him. It’s just a situation where he’s trusting different guys.”
Beyond obvious job security, Oates said his motivation to communicate transparently with his players came from his own 19-year career: “I guess most of it comes from what I wanted as a player. I wanted a coach to talk to me. I wanted a coach to tell me when I did wrong and when I did right. I didn’t need to be fawned over. But to just know, ‘Yeah, good job, man.’ And I wanted more. I was always a guy who wanted me. Give me more. So I want to be that guy. I want to be that guy for every guy, not just Ovi, but every guy.”
Oates keeps going, animated again.
“Look, I played with superstars. I understand the pressure they were under. I know what Alex Rodriguez goes through with the Yankees. A lot of people think they know, but they don’t. The Yankees could win 10 in a row. But if he doesn’t hit a homer, the headline is, ‘What’s wrong with A-Rod?’
“Plus, I have to admit, like, when it comes to Ovi I was a fan. I was a fan of his watching him. How can you not like him? I love how he’s genuinely happy when other guys score.”
As he spoke, Matt Hendricks, the veteran center who played sparingly against Montreal, tapped on his office door. “Two minutes,” Oates said.
“Sometimes people say, ‘Oh, you were a good player.’ They don’t realize I also struggled in the league too,” Oates said. “I got benched. I played on the fourth line. I got humbled. I got traded. I got hurt. I got old. I can talk to anybody.
“Like, I know why that guy [Hendricks] just knocked on my door. He wants to talk about last night. I know what he’s feeling. I’ve been there.
“I personally don’t like the other way, when guys are screamers. I didn’t like that. I showed up for work. So teach me. Help me. If you don’t like me tonight, that’s your opinion. You’re the boss. I respect authority. But teach me. Don’t just [expletive] say, ‘Do that.’ Right?”
If the Caps are winning and the coach is getting the most out of the franchise player, after all, it’s hard to disagree with anything Adam Oates is doing right now.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.