On June 26, Adam Oates achieved two career highlights. He was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame and named an NHL head coach for the first time.
Four-plus months later and a week before the induction in Toronto, Oates has had way too much time to work on his speech because the NHL lockout has prevented him from doing the job the Caps hired him to do.
Sure, Oates is sharing coaching duties in Hershey, Washington’s American Hockey League affiliate, with Bears coach Mark French, but no matter how many NHL prospects are facing the likes of Syracuse and Bridgeport, it’s just not the same as coaching the Caps against the Tampa Bay Lightning or the New Jersey Devils, whom Oates helped reach the Stanley Cup finals as an assistant last spring.
“It’s very frustrating, but it’s a work stoppage,” said Oates, who averaged more assists per game during his 19 seasons as a sweet-passing center than anyone in NHL history than immortals Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr and Mario Lemieux. “It happens in all walks of life. You gotta take a mature attitude about it. Do I want to coach the guys. Absolutely? It happened to me as a player. You just gotta wait it out.”
However, the lockout is especially hard on Oates because this was going to be his debut season in command of an NHL bench. Instead of guiding two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin and Stanley Cup winner Troy Brouwer, he’s coaching 21-year-old winger Garrett Mitchell and 22-year-old defenseman Tomas Kundratek.
“Obviously it wasn’t planned, but having a window to get some experience has been good,” Oates said. “Have I learned anything different [in the AHL]? Not necessarily anything major other than changing lines you hear your voice more often than you did as an assistant. Our prospects are playing very well. People should be excited about them. They look like they could step into a lineup soon. I’ve enjoyed imparting the information to the guys down there.”
Oates followed NHL policy — no matter the ominous lack of progress in negotiations since the lockout began on Sept. 15 — by not speculating about when he might have the chance to be on the ice with Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. However, he used the word “if” not “when” in discussing the lockout’s possible end.
“It’s good for us to get together just so we all speak the same language so that if it does end here, we won’t have a lot of time,” Oates said of himself and new Caps/Bears assistants Calle Johannson and Tim Hunter.
As for being inducted into hockey’s shrine on a night that was supposed to happen just 48 hours before Washington visited New York for the first time since the Rangers’ 7-game Eastern Conference semifinals victory last May, the Toronto area native doesn’t expect his life to change just because he’ll now be Hall of Famer Adam Oates.
“I never put myself in the category of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, people that I thought were special players,” he explained. “Am I honored by it? Absolutely. There’s no bigger compliment than being respected by your peers. I never did it for accolades. It was my job and I loved it.”
Which is what the 54-year-old Oates wishes he could be saying about the job for which he was hired to do this season.
Listen here to the whole Adam Oates press conference from earlier today!
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin