By now, Adam Oates would have been 12 games into his new career as an NHL head coach.
By now, he and assistant coaches Calle Johansson and Tim Hunter would have had enough material to begin tweaking what worked and what didn’t in their first month together as a coaching staff.
Instead, Oates has spent the past five weeks as Mark French’s co-coach with the Hershey Bears, trying to implement his system while Johansson and Hunter rotate games behind the bench with Bears assistant coach Troy Mann.
It is not exactly what Oates envisioned when the Capitals hired him to replace Dale Hunter on June 26.
“It’s very frustrating, but it’s a work stoppage; it happens in all walks of life,” Oates told reporters gathered to discuss, among other things, his Hockey Hall of Fame induction in Toronto on Nov. 12.
“You have to take a mature attitude about it. Do I want to coach the guys? Absolutely. It happened to me when I was a player [in 1994-95] and it happens everywhere. You’ve just got to wait it out.”
With labor talks resuming this week, there is renewed optimism that the NHL players and owners will be able to salvage an abbreviated regular season. If that happens, Oates was asked if he might be at a disadvantage as a first-year coach trying to implement a new system.
“Yeah, probably,” he said. “I was very excited [when I was hired]. I am excited. I can’t wait to touch base with them. When it happens it will happen.”
As a coach, Oates needs to straddle both sides of the fence during this labor standoff. Now considered NHL management he is not permitted to communicate with his players. But as a former player who experienced similar feelings during the 1994-95 lockout that resulted in a 48-game regular season, he said he respects both sides.
Through his first nine games in Hershey Oates has helped guide the Bears to a 4-4-1 record. After three years as an assistant coach in the NHL, he said the two biggest adjustments has been adapting to the AHL schedule – the Bears often play games on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, followed by four days off – and the responsibility of calling out forward line changes.
“You hear your own voice more often than you did as an assistant coach,” he said.
He also has had to consider those three games in three nights when distributing ice time, saying he might back off on a veteran player’s ice time on a Friday so that he’s got enough left in the tank for Sunday.
Oates said he’s been impressed with Capitals prospects Braden Holtby and Dmitry Orlov, each of whom are expected to join the Capitals in the event of a labor settlement. Another positive from Oates’ time in Hershey has been the opportunity for Johansson and Hunter to understand what he wants from his players.
“It’s good for us to speak the same language because if [the lockout] does end we won’t have a lot of time,” he said. “Hopefully we’re all saying the same things to the guys and we can make the transition as fast as possible.”
If there is one thing Oates will not look back fondly on from his AHL experience it will be the long bus rides. The Bears have already made trips to Syracuse, Binghamton, Connecticut, Springfield and Bridgeport.
“It’s a tough part of the job,” he said. “You gotta take your hat off to them. They love hockey and they still want the life and love the life.”