How do you thank a lifetime of coaches, teammates and family members in a span of five minutes?
How do you put into words the gratitude you have for those who helped you become one of the greatest set-up men in the history of hockey?
“It’s pretty impossible to thank everyone in five minutes,” Capitals coach and soon-to-be Hockey Hall of Famer Adam Oates said about the acceptance speech he will make Monday night in Toronto when he is enshrined with NHL greats Joe Sakic, Mats Sundin and Pavel Bure.
“I’m the lucky one. I got to play the game for 19 years. Since June all I’ve done is reflect on the people you played with, the people that helped you get there and your family.
“You try to put it together in order so that you thank the right people.”
Oates played for seven different teams in his NHL career – the Red Wings, Blues, Bruins, Capitals, Flyers, Ducks and Oilers – and finished with 341 goals and 1,079 assists. He ranks sixth in NHL history in assists, behind Wayne Gretzky, Ron Francis, Mark Messier, Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey.
Oates is sure to mention fellow Hall of Famers Brett Hull and Cam Neely in his acceptance speech. He was a big part in each player scoring 50 goals in 50 games.
Neely, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2005 and is now president of the Boston Bruins, said he understands Oates’ anxiety on mentioning all the right people in a short amount of time.
“You want to make sure you get across what it means to you and what people in your life have meant to you,” Neely said. “But it’s difficult because you always leave people out under their time constraints.”
It’s those people that Oates says make up the fabric of a player’s hockey career.
“One of the points I’m going to bring up is that in life you make connections and they don’t always last,” he said. “But you connected with someone, whenever it was, and hockey’s no different.
“You play on a team and you connect with a guy for a little while, then your paths go different ways. He’s married, I’m single. Guys get traded. But there was a connection there.”
It happened for Oates over the weekend. Before coaching a game for the Hershey Bears, Oates ran into the trainer for Mercyhurst College, Mike Folga, who was the trainer for the Blues when Oates played in St. Louis.
“He comes walking in and it’s like, ‘Hey Mike! Oh my! What are you doing?’ Right away there’s a connection, there’s a spark. Your mind goes back there. You bump into someone all the time in hockey. That’s life. Those memories are the ones I’m tryng to bring out.”
Of course, Oates will also thank his parents, David and Loretta, who pushed him to go to college at RPI when he went undrafted out of high school.
“I just don’t want to break down,” he said.
Although he masks it well, Oates is an emotional guy and he admits he’s allowed his mnd to wander in recent weeks – from his coaching duties with the Bears to the ongoing NHL labor negotiations and the responsibilities of making accommodations for his family this weekend, which includes a slew of events and dinners.
“I’ve been trying to put it in different compartments all day long, every day,” he said. “It just cycles back and forth. It’s actually been stressful because the Hall of Fame is an important thing and having to spend a lot of time on that and coaching, it’s been very stressful.”
Neely offered one word of advice for Oates as he prepares for his acceptance speech: practice.
“From my own experience I found that the more I practiced my speech the easier it was to get through it,” Neely said. “But there are certainly a lot of emotions that go through you that evening.”