Growing up in Weston, Ontario, Adam Oates lived every Canadian boy's fantasy. He grew up playing hockey on the ice and in the streets, dreaming of playing in the National Hockey League.
Only Adam Oates' role model was not Montreal's Guy Lafleur or Toronto's Dave Keon like so many Canadian kids. He grew up idolizing his dad's favorite English soccer star - Stanley Matthews. Known as the Wizard of Dribble, Matthews is considered to be the most beautiful passer who rarely scored himself. When Oates started playing hockey and lacrosse as a child, his father insisted that he "be like Stanley - unselfish."
Oates' father's insistence on passing and setting up teammates obviously paid big dividends. Oates’ puck handling and distributing skills, as well as his sure hands, have made him the second-best passer of his time and the player most commonly compared with the best, Wayne Gretzky. Like other on-ice visionaries, Oates changes speeds and uses subtle shifts in movement and positioning to put defenders off balance. He became an NHL star because of his impeccable passing skills, uncanny ability to anticipate plays and outstanding on-ice vision. He was at times unselfish almost to a fault. But he was far from a one dimensional player. In fact, he was an underrated defensive center and was particularly utilized on the penalty kill or when there was a defensive zone face-off late in the game. His defensive awareness made him invaluable as it would allow his coaches to go head to head with the other team's big line without fear.
"As far as I'm concerned, he's the second best playmaking center behind Wayne Gretzky in hockey," said Brett Hull.
Hull should know. Considered to be one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the game, Hull enjoyed his finest years in the three seasons Hull and Oates made fine music in St. Louis. Hull scored 72, 86 and 70 goals in those three seasons, an unthinkable total of 228 goals in 231 games.
Hull may be Oates' most famous recipient, but not his only. Oates is the only player to center three 50-goal scorers - Peter Bondra, Cam Neely and Hull. He is also the only one to center two players , Neely and Hull, who scored 50 goals in 50 games
He ranks 6th all time in career assists, with 1079 in 1337 games, trailing Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Mark Messier Ron Francis, and Wayne Gretzky, all of who played more games. His career assists per game ratio of 0.85 is only outdone by Bobby Orr (0.98), Mario Lemieux (1.13) and Gretzky (1.32).
Not bad for a kid who was never drafted. Oates flew under the scouts radar, as he never intended to play junior hockey, instead hoping to catch on with an American university. In the fall of 1982 he accepted a full scholarship to Rensselaer Polytechnical Institue (RPI) where he earned a degree in management. Even then he was never considered to be a top NHL prospect. His own coach, Mike Addesa, once affectionately called “a stumpy, heavy-footed, poor-skating, no-shooting kid.” Addesa was not too critical of Oates though. Oates set all school scoring records and led the RPI Engineers to an unexpected NCAA championship in 1985.
The NHL finally took notice and the Detroit Red Wings took a chance on the kid by offering him one of the richest rookie free agent contracts. Playing behind Steve Yzerman, Oates quietly solidified his reputation as an elite NHL playmaker with the Red Wings, earning close to an assist per game by his final season in 1989.
The summer of 1989 brought a surprise trade. He was traded to the St. Louis Blues along with Paul MacLean in exchange Tony McKegney and Bernie Federko, the long time face of the Blues.
Though initially devastated by the trade, Oates quickly prospered in St. Louis, where he teamed up Brett Hull. Hull would become the unquestioned goal scoring king and league MVP, with many thanks to the quiet play of Oates. Oates, too, was spectacular, particularly in 1990-91 when he had 90 assists and 115 points in only 61 games and was named to the NHL Second Team All-Star.
Despite the Blues rise and the dominance of Hull & Oates, the Blues curiously opted to play contractual hardball with Oates. The Blues handed over the keys to Hull, and were cursed around the league for what some irresponsibly high contracts to free agents like Scott Stevens and Brendan Shanahan. When it was Oates' turn to cash in, however, the Blues opted not to, and during the 1991-92 season he was traded to the Boston Bruins in return for Craig Janney and Stephane Quintal.
Oates had perhaps his best seasons yet in 1992-93, as he scored a career-high 45 goals, 97 assists and 142 points to finish third overall in regular season scoring behind Mario Lemieux and Pat LaFontaine. Oates credited his higher goal totals to the fact he played down low on the power play, as opposed to on the point as in St. Louis. Oates' 97 assists were the best of his career, and even more amazing since he didn't have a true superstar to play with, as sniper Cam Neely was injured for all but 13 games during the season.
The next season, Oates again finished third with 32 goals, 80 assists, and 112 points, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Sergei Federov. This time Oates and Neely teamed up for their most spectacular season together. Neely's leg injuries would persist, and he would only get in for 49 games. But in that time Neely scored 50 goals, most of which were set up by Oates.
Oates played with Boston until the 1996-97 NHL season, when a blockbuster trade took him, Bill Ranford and Rick Tocchet to the Washington Capitals for Jim Carey, Anson Carter, Jason Allison and a draft choice at the 1997 trading deadline. Oates helped lead the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals the next season, but failed to win as the Capitals lost to the Red Wings. Oates continued to have productive seasons with the Caps, leading the league in assists in 2000-01 and 2001-02, despite nearing 40 years old.
In 2002-03, Oates returned to the Stanley Cup Finals, this time with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, but again his team was beat out, this time in seven games by the New Jersey Devils. Though his offensive production was down this late in his career, and his skating was poorer than ever, he remained a power play expert and a face-off specialist extraordinaire.
Adam Oates retired in 2004. It will be interesting to see if history is as unfair to him as contemporary times. He was one of the true greats, but was somehow always overlooked. Just the way Adam Oates likes it to be.