The way Adam Oates remembers it, he played hockey, baseball and lacrosse and ran track against Wayne Gretzky when he was younger. “And he beat me at all of ‘em,” Oates says.
But finally, after waiting five years for the call, Oates can say he is on par with Gretzky in one very important department. Not only did Oates share with Gretzky an uncanny vision of the ice, an intellect for the game and the ability to be one of the greatest playmaking centers in NHL history, he can also take his place alongside Gretzky in the Hall of Fame.
And whether Oates would admit it or not, being part of the Hall of Fame’s class of 2012 along with Pavel Bure, Joe Sakic and Mats Sundin represents a fair amount of redemption for a player who seemed to fly under the radar for most of his career.
You want underappreciated? Oates never experienced what it was like to be drafted into the Ontario League or the NHL. He sat through the NHL awards ceremony six times as a finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy and finished second four times, including the year he was the co-host of the ceremony. After throwing ridiculous amounts of money at players who were much lesser, the St. Louis Blues decided to draw a line in the sand with Oates and traded him to the Boston Bruins in 1992 after a nasty contract dispute. (In their defense, they had signed Oates to a four-year deal that previous summer and Oates had threatened to walk out if the deal was not renegotiated. Still, it was a strange player with whom to go to war after the kind of money the Blues were throwing around in those days.)
But now, Oates is finally getting his moment. Actually, his 15 minutes of fame came this past summer when he found out on one phone call that he had just been hired as coach of the Washington Capitals, then saw his phone ringing 15 minutes later from a number he didn’t recognize. Thinking it was a media outlet seeking a comment about getting the Capitals job, he decided not to answer, only to get a call later from Capitals GM George McPhee suggesting he take the call, since it was from the Hall of Fame.
For his part, Oates maintains getting in the Hall of Fame does not finally represent recognition for his achievements, simply because he never seemed to get that caught up in the setbacks over the course of his career.
“Other than the day it happens, you’re a little bummed out, but life goes on,” Oates says. “I never viewed myself (as a Hall of Famer). I always viewed myself as a solid player and if it happened, great. But I never got too emotional about it.”
Oates may not have the career achievements his Class of 2012 brethren do, but there is little doubt he took a much more circuitous route to stardom and the Hall of Fame. In fact, Oates quit high school to focus on his hockey career, but had a change of heart when a coach by the name of Mike Addesa recruited him to play for Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and convinced him to go back to school. Three years later, Oates led RPI to a national championship. He then signed what was then an outrageous contract for an undrafted free agent for four years and $1.1 million with the Detroit Red Wings.
“It wasn’t that I wasn’t a good student or anything, it was just that I didn’t care about it,” Oates says. “Nothing else mattered and I was more naive at the time more than anything. Even when I got into RPI, I was on probation as a freshman.”
Coincidentally, Oates played on the same Markham Waxers Jr. A team as Steve Thomas, another high-scoring NHLer who was never drafted by an NHL or OHL team. Kind of makes you wonder how so many scouts could so badly judge talent, but the fact nobody was willing to take even a late-round flyer on either of them indicated the consensus about them was unanimous. It’s mind-boggling, really, after watching Oates go on to become one of the greatest assist men in NHL history.
So when you talk about Hall of Fame players, one of the qualities you look for is one’s ability to make other players better. Brett Hull and Cam Neely were special talents to be sure and have their own Hall of Fame plaques to prove it, but the common thread in their 50 goals in 50-or-fewer games milestones is that Oates was their center. No player in the league has ever done that before.
And that’s what makes Oates a deserving honoree alongside Bure, Sakic and Sundin. With career totals of 1,967 goals and 5,189 points, the 2012 class might be the most explosively offensive group ever to inducted in one year. Surprisingly, though, it’s not the highest-scoring group. The 2007 class of Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Al MacInnis and Scott Stevens lead the way at 5,867 career points and the 2009 cohort of Hull, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman are second at 5,568.
Almost a decade after his career ended, Oates is finally among them where he belongs.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.