It was a little more than three years ago, after five years away from the game, that Adam Oates decided to give coaching a try as an assistant with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“I came in optimistic about how I’d feel and really, from Day One it was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is what I’ve been missing in my life.’
“It’s been the next challenge of my life to pass on my knowledge and learn to be a coach.”
Hours before making his debut as an NHL coach with the Capitals Oates was asked if he recognized the irony of facing the team that gave him his start in coaching as an assistant to Rick Tocchet.
“It crossed my mind, yeah,” he said with a smile. “It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?”
It was during that 2009-10 season in Tampa that Oates built personal relationships with many of the Lightning players he’ll coach against tonight.
“He analyzes the game on a different level,” Lightning right wing Marty St. Louis said. “Not just Xs and Os and systems, but why some guys do certain things. He loves the game and I think that’s why we became friends so quick. I think I have the same love for the game.”
Ask anyone who has played for him and you hear the same things over and over about Oates.
His attention to detail.
His ability to tweak something in a player’s game that makes a dramatic improvement.
His ability to remain calm in a tense situation.
And, of course, his fixation with the curve of a players’ stick.
“He’s able to relate to you in every situation on the ice,” said Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who led the NHL with 60 goals last season. “Whether you were going through a great stretch or a tough stretch he knew exactly what your feeling and what you needed to do to stay focused on that task.”
Oates and Stamkos would spend hours talking about the little things in a game that lead to scoring chances. In that season, Stamkos’ goal totals jumped from 23 as a rookie to 51.
“Little things like curves on your sticks, little passing lanes, fakes,” Stamkos said. “He knew exactly what you were thinking on every play and if it didn’t work and you came back to the bench he knew what you were trying to do and never discouraged you to try creative things.
“I learned a lot and to this day I still stay in touch with him.”
“He’s a special, special person,” Oates said of Stamkos. “To be that mature at that young an age, and to be that productive and talented. He’s a fantastic hockey player and a great person.”
Stamkos said Oates has tried to get all of his players to use the same curve he has on his stick.
“He loved it,” Stamkos said. “When you think about it, getting pucks along the boards, getting shots off quick, taking a pass. Little things you never think of, he’s able to break it down and that’s just the way his mind thinks. That’s why he was arguably the best playmaker in the history of hockey.”
As a veteran, St. Louis said he appreciates the understanding Oates has for the ebbs and flows of a season and the challenge of producing on a consistent basis. He said Oates helped him better manage his shifts, his periods, his scoring streaks and his dry spells.
“Because he’s gone through all those things,” St. Louis said. “He understands that. He has a feel for the game and he tries to translate it as a coach.”
Oates took that same teaching style to New Jersey, where he helped turn Ilya Kovalchuk into a complete player, a task he is now attempting with Alex Ovechkin, who has moved from left wing to right wing and will be asked to kill penalties..
“He demands the little things are done right,” Capitals left wing Jason Chimera said. “He’s heavy into details and those are the things that win championships.”