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Wharnsby: Oates took winding road to Hall of Fame

There are many aspects that differentiate Adam Oates from Pavel Bure, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin — the players who along with Oates comprise the 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame class.

For starters, they all were drafted. Oates was not. He also played for seven different franchises in the NHL — many more than Sakic (one), Sundin (three) and Bure (three).

There are many aspects that differentiate Adam Oates from Pavel Bure, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin — the players who along with Oates comprise the 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame class.

Sakic won Stanley Cups, Olympic gold and a world championship title. Sundin won Olympic and world championship gold. Bure won a world championship and world junior gold. They all were drafted.

Oates was not. He played for seven different franchises in the NHL — many more than Sakic (one), Sundin (three) and Bure (three).

This begs a question: which team does Oates associate himself with: the Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Philadelphia Flyers, Anaheim Ducks or Edmonton Oilers?

“My first team was Detroit, an Original Six team,” Oates said. “It’s my first team, you’re a young kid, you love it. Then I get traded to St. Louis. My best memories are playing with Brett [Hull]. Then I go to another Original Six team in Boston. If you really forced me I’d probably say Boston.

“But then I go to Washington and it’s the first time I get to go to the [Stanley Cup] finals. So, there were a lot of good things that happened to me everywhere I went.”

In Boston, Oates enjoyed statistically his best season in 1992-93 with 142 points in 84 gamesonly 13 of those with Cam Neely because of injuries suffered by Neely.

The breakdown for Oates’s games with his different teams goes like this:

  • Washington: 387
  • Boston: 368
  • Detroit: 246
  • St. Louis: 195
  • Anaheim: 67
  • Edmonton: 60
  • Philadelphia: 14

Quit high school

That Oates played in 1,337 regular-season games and another 163 in the Stanley Cup playoffs is remarkable. He not only wasn’t drafted by an NHL team, he was never drafted by an OHL junior club.

He quit high school and pumped gas because he felt a pro career in hockey was a certainty. It wasn’t until a push from Mike Addesa — the head coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and an extremely influential person in Oates’s life — that Oates was persuaded to return to school and get his high school diploma.

“I was struggling in school,” Oates said. “I was a little bit of a cocky kid, thinking that I would figure out a way to get there. All of sudden I’m playing tier II [with the Markham Waxers], I’m a little old and time is running out.”

Oates was smart. He just preferred to focus on hockey. School was a distraction he didn’t need. But RPI was difficult academically. Oates had to go on probation in his first year because of his high school transcript. But he excelled in the college classroom and on the ice.

RPI won the NCAA championship in 1984-85. This prompted Oates to leave school after three years to sign as a free agent with the Red Wings. But in three of the next four summers Oates went back to his studies to earn his degree in management.

The ‘Susan Lucci’ of NHLers

Even though Oates became one of the best setup men in the NHL, he still didn’t receive the attention he deserved. He won no major awards. He was a six-time runner-up for the Lady Byng Trophy and labeled himself the Susan Lucci of the award, after the actress who was often a bridesmaid for soap opera prizes.

Oates also had to wait an extra five years after his 2003 retirement to get the call to the Hockey Hall of Fame, even though he is sixth on the NHL’s all-time points list:

  1. Wayne Gretzky: 1,963
  2. Ron Francis: 1,249
  3. Mark Messier: 1,193
  4. Ray Bourque: 1,169
  5. Paul Coffey: 1,135
  6. Adam Oates: 1,079
  7. Steve Yzerman: 1,063
  8. Gordie Howe: 1,049
  9. Marcel Dione: 1,040
  10. Mario Lemieux: 1,033

Sir Stanley Matthews would be proud. The English soccer star was an important figure in the Oates family, whose roots are in Great Britain. Oates’s father loves Matthews, a set-up man in his own right on the pitch.

“He was my dad’s boyhood idol,” Oates said. “It was kind of our family story growing up. He would always tell me how he never scored a goal because he always passed. Because I always passed the puck, it was kind of our family legacy story.”

A new chapter

When the NHL lockout finally does get settled, Oates will begin his first head coaching job with the Capitals. He has worked behind the bench as an assistant coach in the past few seasons, advancing to the Stanley Cup final with the New Jersey Devils last spring.

He will take something from all the coaches he’s played for. He also has the experience of a vast career to draw upon. He’s played on first lines and fourth lines, was a standout and a healthy scratch. He’s dealt with the mood swings while playing alongside temperamental superstars and has toiled through different eras and different styles of play.

“I took a little time off [after my playing career ended],” Oates said. “But I always watched the playoffs every night. One day I said to my wife I think I’d like to try coaching and she said ‘Lets go for it.’

“There are a couple of things you try and watch yourself about. You don’t want the players to roll their eyes at something you have said, just like you did. But it’s going to happen.

“As I’ve said all along, I’m a real big believer in communication. I wanted that as a player and I can’t be a hypocrite. I’m coaching the way I wanted a coach to be as a player.”

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