Taking the path less travelled

Lucas Punkari/Daily Herald Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Adam Oates signs autographs during the Prince Albert Kinsmen/Raiders Sportsman Dinner at the Ches Leach Lounge last Friday night.

Adam Oates’ journey to the Hockey Hall of Fame is different from most inductees.

After being not being selected in the National Hockey League draft, Oates had two stellar campaigns in what is now the Ontario Junior Hockey League as member of the now defunct Markham Waxers.

From there, he went to play college hockey for the RPI Engineers for three years and won a NCAA title in 1985 before being signed by the Detroit Red Wings.

“I got very lucky,” Oates said last Friday night when he served as the guest of honour during the Prince Albert Kinsmen/Raiders Sportsman Dinner. “Growing up in Toronto, you want to get drafted and then get a chance to play in major junior, so when that didn’t happen I was devastated.

“I was given a chance to go down and play at RPI, where I was able to learn a lot from a great coach (Mike Addesa) and I was able to mature as a player and a man. They were looking for size and speed in the draft back then, and since I was a little slow in junior; I was pretty much pigeon holed. So by going to college, I was able to become stronger and it gave the scouts another chance to see my game.”

Oates’ playmaking ability separated from his peers as he put together 1,079 assists during 19 seasons in the NHL, which was the fifth most in league history when he retired in 2004.

The 56-year-old believes much of that mindset of helping his teammates came from his father, who immigrated to Canada from England and was a huge soccer fan.

“His idol was (star England striker) Stanley Matthews and the mantra that my Dad took from watching play was that you were able to control the game if you were distributing the ball, or in the case of hockey, the puck,” Oates said. “I realized right away that your teammates like you more if you give them the puck and they can score goals, so that kind of became my shtick.

“The same rules applied when I played lacrosse growing up as I was always keen on having control of the ball. That’s probably why I love watching (Anaheim Ducks forward) Ryan Getzlaf play so much, as he’s always got the puck on his stick.”

Oates’ most remembered run in the NHL came from 1989 to 1992 with the St. Louis Blues, when he was on the same line as future Hall of Famer Brett Hull and put up prolific numbers together.

“Brett had a similar background to me as he came out of the college ranks and played for Calgary, but he ended up getting traded to St. Louis shortly before I was traded by Detroit,” Oates said. “There was something about his game that just seemed to rejuvenate the both of us and we had a perfect chemistry together.

“I’ve told this story at a few events and it’s actually something that Wayne Gretzky pointed out once, but Brett’s greatest strength was knowing when to get open, and he always seemed to do that when we played together.”

After a six-year stint as a coach in the NHL, including two seasons as the bench boss for the Washington Capitals from 2012 to 2014, Oates now works a skills consultant for players such as Jonathan Toews, Jack Eichel and Mark Schiefele.

“I don’t have any kids, but it feels like I have 53 of them when I see the success that the guys I work with have,” Oates said. “After each night, I’m scouring my phone to see which guys produced on offence or how many minutes a defenceman played.

“The league is so competitive now, so everyone’s working hard during the summer to try and find that extra edge.”