WASHINGTON — Adam Oates should have risen Sunday morning and drove to the top floor of the Ballston Common Mall’s parking deck in Arlington, Va., pulled into his spot at Kettler Capitals Iceplex almost unconsciously, with so much else filling a mind that processes information nimbly. He should be reviewing Saturday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and thinking ahead to tonight’s against the Florida Panthers, both scheduled for Verizon Center in Washington, both canceled. He should have 30 games as an NHL head coach behind him. He has zero.
So he comes to Kettler with no official agenda, no power-play problem that needs fixing and no star whose ego needs stroking. The few players who skate at the Washington Capitals’ practice facility show up inconsistently, and even when they do, he’s not allowed to provide conversation, much less instruction. He has no practices, no morning skates, no games. He is not a coach-in-waiting, but rather a coach, just waiting.
“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’ 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 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’ 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’ 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.”