During his Hall-of-Fame on-ice career, Adam Oates was known as one of the NHL’s greatest playmakers. But in comments he made regarding Sharks forward Tomas Hertl’s incredible, between-the-legs goal Tuesday night against the Rangers, Oates created a firestorm of controversy.
“I’m upset,” Oates said. I was just talking to (Capitals GM) George (McPhee) and he said all the kids do that nowadays, which I understand. But would he have done it on his first goal? He hasn’t scored yet tonight and he gets a breakaway, is he going to do that on his breakaway? We’ll see.
“I think it was a little bit of a mood thing, which I’m sure they talked about, because they didn’t play him after that,” Oates added. “I’m glad the coach did that. Because this league, it will bite you if you’re not sharp. Don’t disrespect the league. I’m sure it was a rookie mistake.”
This was another example of professional hockey’s longtime culture of squashing any genuine displays of joy or spontaneous emotion. As I said on Twitter, the NHL is a place where a retired veteran can tell a rookie who hasn’t been there before that he should act like he’s been there before. God forbid a young kid watching hockey should see happiness beaming from the face from one of his idols – that kid might think the game is fun.
Thankfully, there were former and current NHL players and coaches who defended Hertl’s right to be creative and exuberant. Retired winger Jeff O’Neill referenced a NHL legend who did something similar. Hawks coach Joel Quenneville accurately figured out what industry the league operates within. And Hertl’s teammate and Sharks captain Joe Thornton...well, he had his own unique perspective, one that may spin into a controversy of its own.
This isn’t the first instance of a player ripped by the hockey establishment for trying something different, and it won’t be the last. But the fact is that, as Quenneville noted, this is an entertainment business, not a solemn duty to be carried out with a grim, pained expression on your face.
Oates’ intention may not have been to humiliate Hertl, but in the end, it was Oates' old-time mindset that suggests fun is to be avoided at all costs that was knocked down a peg.