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Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Updated: November 8, 12:58 AM ET
Oates reflects on full NHL career

By Scott Burnside
ESPN.com

Let's start this discussion about the newest member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, Adam Oates, with this: Don't ever feel bad for him because he didn't win a Stanley Cup.

Ever.

Whether or not the fact that he doesn't own a ring delayed his induction into the Hall of Fame is moot, because Oates emphatically insists he wouldn't trade anything he had or accomplished or saw or did for the elusive ring.

Nothing.

"Nineteen years in the NHL, how lucky am I? I got to play in the NHL for 19 years," Oates told ESPN.com during a recent interview.

"There's other guys that won a Cup their first year [who] would trade a career for that ring, and if they say they wouldn't, they're lying," he said. "I got to play my job in the National Hockey League for 19 years, and I wouldn't trade the memories, I wouldn't trade playing with Brett Hull for anything."

When we catch up with Oates, he is standing outside the Hershey Bears' dressing room in Hershey, Pa., where the new head coach of the Washington Capitals is working as co-coach with the Caps' American Hockey League affiliate during the NHL lockout.

A few minutes earlier, he was wandering through the locker room with a laptop computer, glasses on, going over some strategy with one of his players.

Later, he will coach three games in three nights with the Bears.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hall of Famers like Steve Yzerman, Al MacInnis, Ron Francis and Joe Nieuwendyk who traded Hall of Fame careers for front-office jobs, Oates followed a different route back to the game.

After spending three years as an assistant coach in Tampa and New Jersey -- where he helped the Devils to the 2012 Stanley Cup finals -- Oates got a call from his old GM in Washington, George McPhee. Now Oates is tasked with getting the talented Capitals over the hump, a job he has embraced with gusto.

Adam Oates
Adam Oates collected 156 points in 163 postseason games and went to the Stanley Cup finals with Washington in 1998 and Anaheim in 2003.

It was one of those great twists of fate that the call to take over his first NHL team as a coach and the call beckoning him to the Hall of Fame came on the same day, literally minutes apart.

"I'm still looking for the words. I've been trying to find the right words [to describe the day]. I got the call for the job first, which I was so excited about. And I'm going through the process of calling everybody, telling them I got the job, when this number keeps beeping in, and George texts me and says you might want to take that call," Oates recalled with the kind of grin that looks like the memory hasn't faded much since that day in June.

That other call came from Hall of Fame selection committee executives Jim Gregory and Pat Quinn.

"It's one of those things where I hung up the phone and kind of said, 'You've got to be kidding me.' And everything goes through your mind. It's kind of like a wow moment. I called my dad, called my mom, obviously told my wife. That night I was just sitting there going, 'Wow, like wow,'" said Oates.

By its nature, a trip to the Hall of Fame is a time for reflection, a time for stepping away to consider all that went into the equation to result in that phone call and a plaque hanging alongside the game's greatest players and builders.

Oates' career spanned 19 seasons, and his 1,420 points are 16th most in NHL history. His 1,079 assists are sixth overall and reflect his standing as one of the game's most gifted playmakers of all time.

He never won a Cup, as noted, but the undrafted Oates managed to collect 156 points in 163 postseason games, including trips to the Cup finals in 1998 with Washington and 2003 with Anaheim.

"Since that day, all I've really done is reflect on my career," Oates said.

"I'm going to say in my speech that I'm sure there's not one guy that when they actually thought about 'wow I'm in,' didn't all of a sudden spend the next period of time going 'hmmm,' and you start thinking about your career, and that's what I've done since June."

Interesting, though, that such an honor and the attendant introspection comes at a time when Oates is committed to learning new skills, to forging a new path in the hockey world.

"Right now, I have a new challenge in my life. How lucky am I at 50? I've got new responsibilities in my life. It's great," Oates said.

Former linemate and fellow Hall of Famer Hull admitted he was initially surprised when his old friend called a few years back and said he was thinking about trying coaching.

Great players are blessed with such innate talent that communicating the nuances of the game, what made them great, is sometimes difficult, Hull told ESPN.com in a recent interview.

"But if there's a guy that can do it and be successful, it's Adam," said Hull, who puts Oates' hockey savvy in a rare class with players like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux.

Brett Hull
Adam Oates and Brett Hull clicked from the moment they met and spent almost three seasons punishing defenses and goalies.

Hull and Oates formed one of the most dynamic tandems in NHL history after Oates was traded from Detroit to St. Louis in June 1989, a deal that then GM Jim Devellano has often referred to as one of the worst hockey trades of his career.

"I know the moment we did meet and did become teammates there was a connection that was evident not only on the ice but off the ice," Hull said.

"It was peanut butter and jelly. We just went together."

The two were polar opposites, and maybe that's what made their connection so dynamic, so dangerous.

"He loved to see a guy score and to set up a goal as much as I loved to score," Hull said. "He was such a genius on the ice."

The two roomed together on the road, hung out at home and made life hell for opposing defensemen and goaltenders. In 195 games with the Blues over parts of three seasons, Oates scored 58 goals and added an incredible 228 assists. Hull scored 228 goals, for a remarkable average of 76 goals a season over those three seasons.

Together, the two would obsess over sticks, different lies, weights, curves. They would get after their teammates and suggest changes in lumber they thought would help.

A favorite moment for Hull?

Hull recalls playing in Minnesota one night against the North Stars when opposing center Marc Bureau did something to annoy Oates.

As they lined up in the North Stars' zone, Oates gave a nod to Hull, who went straight to the side of the net, and Oates deftly won the draw and sidestepped Bureau before sending the puck to a wide- open Hull, who tapped in from about three inches.

As they headed for the bench, Hull could see Oates jawing at Bureau, essentially saying, Look at you now.

"Obviously, Adam wasn't a fighter, but he had fire in him," Hull said.

Oates spent parts of only three seasons in St. Louis, although it seems longer.

He landed in Boston during the latter stages of the 1991-92 season. And he became fast friends with the tough, skilled winger Rick Tocchet, who came to Boston in 1995. It wasn't long before the two developed significant on-ice chemistry, thanks in large part to some on-the-fly tutorials from Oates.

"He would tell me, Just go here and I'll get you the puck even though I'd been used to going somewhere else," Tocchet said with a laugh.

"Just little things that I'd never thought of. We were very successful. He was giving me tap-ins left and right."

When Oates retired after the 2003-04 season, he lived for the most part in California, getting up early in the morning to walk his dogs, work out and play golf. Then he'd go to bed early and get up and repeat.

"I remember when he told me about his routine I was like, 'Are you serious?'" Tocchet recalled.

Oates played a lot of golf, and when he wasn't playing, he taught some. He also caddied on the PGA Tour with Brett Quigley.

But when Tocchet called his old linemate before the start of the 2009-10 season and asked if Oates would be interested in helping out as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning where Tocchet was the head coach, Oates bit.

It's not as though there was an epiphany along the way, the lightbulb going off over Oates' head that said "yes, I must coach."

"It didn't really work that way," Oates said. "I would say, in hindsight, I felt that as a player I did some coaching. Being a responsible player and talking as a veteran and doing the little things that you point out, I felt like that's doing a little bit of coaching. But no, I didn't have some sort of magic thing. Rick Tocchet called me and I asked my wife and she said let's do it, and I said, you know what, I'd like to try."

But it didn't take long for the job to get under Oates' skin, as in the first game with the Lightning.

"It's exactly how it went," Oates said with a grin. "It was fast. It was fast, and the electricity was unbelievable. It was, 'Yes, I miss this in my life.'''

Adam Oates
When hired as the Devils head coach, Peter DeBoer said he was planning on firing Adam Oates until meeting with the now Hall of Famer.

After a year in Tampa, Oates joined the Devils' coaching staff. In the summer of 2011, Peter DeBoer took over as head coach. DeBoer acknowledged that as he prepared to meet with Oates in the offseason, he was predisposed to not bringing him back so he could assemble his own staff.

"Two hours later, I walked out and I said, 'This is a guy I want to work with and have to have back,'" DeBoer told ESPN.com recently.

"He's very honest. He's very forthright. He's got very strong opinions. He really coaches like he played, and he was a very unselfish player. He's a smart guy. I think he's going to transition well [to being a full-time coach]."

Oates knew his coaching career might have stalled a year ago when DeBoer took over.

"I'm a logical guy. I know he's going to have shortcomings about me. He doesn't know me. He's coming into a new team and I just wanted to let him know from the opening get-go that I got your back. I got information. You want it, you got it. You want me to just stand here, you got it. I'm an assistant coach, I know what my responsibilities are, I will support you," Oates said.

"I said to him, the only thing is, look, I'm not going to lie to you, there's a time in my life when I want to be a head coach. I don't want your job, but I want when someone calls you, you say, 'yeah, Oatsy's good,' that's my goal."

As it turned out, that call came earlier than maybe either Oates or DeBoer expected.

When former Capitals captain Dale Hunter decided to return to his junior hockey team in London, Ontario, McPhee called on Oates, who was with the Caps when McPhee took over as GM in 1997.

"Sometimes you don't know how good a player is until you work with that player," McPhee said in a recent interview.

Sometimes when you see a player up close, they turn out not to be as good as you imagined, McPhee said. Sometimes, and this was the case with Oates, you see much more depth and texture to a game than you imagined.

"I had no idea he was as good as he was defensively," McPhee said. "You realize how valuable one player can be when they do so many things well."

During the team's exit interviews last May, one veteran Capital suggested to McPhee that, if Hunter wasn't going to return, he could do a lot worse than talk to Oates.

"He said he thought that Adam Oates could become one heck of a coach from all that he was hearing," McPhee said.

Now he's about to find out.

"The coach has to be a lot of things, and he was a lot of things to us," McPhee said.

Calle Johansson played with Oates later in Oates' career and is now a member of Washington's coaching staff. He liked playing with Oates a lot better than playing against him.

"He was the kind of guy who could make you look silly," Johansson said. "He's probably the most underrated player I've ever played with or against."

As for the transition from player to coach, Johansson sees the same traits on display every day at the rink as Oates delivers his game plan to his players.

"This guy knows what he's doing. It's detail, detail, detail. It's a great experience," Johansson said. "As a 45-year-old defenseman, I'm still learning from him."

Is Oates the man to take a talented Capitals team to new heights?

It's too early to tell, but if he's not, it won't be for lack of preparation.

"One of my things that I tried to say to George is that I think I'm a good coach because I can identify with every single guy on your team," Oates said. "I played in the minors. I got traded. I got benched. I had success. I played with superstars. I played on every line on the team. I played on the fourth line. I played in the fighting era. There's not a guy that I can't have a story for. I think I wore every hat as a player."

One of those hats now says Hall of Famer.