At times during Adam Oates’ career with the Blues, his teammates had no idea where the slick-handed center was passing the puck.
“He would throw a backhanded pass through the middle of the slot, and you were on the ice or the bench thinking, ‘Who the heck is going to be ... BOOM! ... somebody would come through that hole and hammer it,” former Blue Kelly Chase said. “You would be like, ‘What the heck just happened there?’”
Defenseman Jeff Brown, he of 47 assists himself in 1990-91, added, “If a lane wasn’t there, he would hang on to it, hang on to it, look away and almost practice making blind passes. That was the thing, he always knew where guys were.”
In 2½ years in St. Louis, Oates netted 228 assists, and in 19 NHL seasons he totaled 1,079, sixth-highest in the history of the league. He retired in 2004 and a three-year waiting period didn’t make him eligible for the Hockey Hall of Fame until in ’07, and he waited an additional five years before receiving his official invitation last June.
But tonight, the creative half of the popular Blues' point-machine, “Hull & Oates,” and one of the game’s most prolific setup men, Oates will finally be on the receiving end of a gifted pass – a Hall pass.
In a ceremony that will be televised on the NHL Network beginning at 6:30 p.m. (St. Louis time), Oates will be enshrined in a class alongside Joe Sakic, Pavel Bure and Mats Sundin.
“I’m extremely happy for Adam,” said Brett Hull, who was inducted into the Hall in 2009. “For a guy to be as classy as he was, to put up those numbers in relative anonymity almost, I tip my hat to the Hall of Fame committee for seeing his body of work and seeing that it belongs in the Hall of Fame.”
An undrafted player who got his shot in the NHL after signing with the Detroit Red Wings in 1985, Oates led the league in assists three times in his career and was second to only Wayne Gretzky in assists for the entire decade of the 1990s. He was the principal setup man for three 50-goal scorers (Hull, Boston’s Cam Neely and Washington’s Peter Bondra), and two of those (Hull and Neely) netted 50 in 50 games or less.
“For me, the two things that always come to mind: I got to play with two guys who scored 50 in 50. ... It’s only been done a handful of times, and I played with two of them,” Oates said. “When Brett did it in St. Louis (in 1990-91 and ‘91-92), he was taking the league by storm. It was just fantastic to be a part of it. Then when Cam did it, he basically did it on one leg. And I had the best seats for both of them.”
Acquired along with Paul MacLean on June 15, 1989, in a deal with Detroit that sent Bernie Federko and Tony McKegney to the Red Wings, Oates found instant chemistry with Hull.
“I think we were both ready to go to the next level,” Oates said. “Brett scored (41) goals the year before; I scored (78) points the year before. After getting traded, all of a sudden we clicked together. We’re getting more ice time together and before you know it, we’re rolling, and the next you know, he scores 72 goals and 86 goals. It was incredible.
“Brett’s a very, very smart guy and never got enough credit for that part of his game. You don’t score 700 goals by just standing still. There is actually an art to that, too. His ability to be elusive and be able to shoot the imperfect pass as much as the perfect pass meant he is the best at that.”
“But you know what?” Hull said. “A goal scorer can score goals, but without a guy like Adam, you don’t reach the level that I was able to reach. There’s a lot of guys who can score goals and unfortunately for a lot of them, they didn’t get to play with an Adam Oates.”
Of the club-record 527 goals Hull scored with the Blues, he had 212 while Oates was in St. Louis, and Oates assisted on 94. In 1990-91, when Hull netted 86 goals, the third-highest total in NHL history, Oates assisted on 41.
“As good as Hullie was at shooting the puck off his front foot, back foot, it seemed like Oatsie was always sliding it in his wheel-house,” Brown said.
But there was more to Oates’ abilities than his deft passing skills. He never got rattled on the ice, or if he did, he never showed it.
“I remember reading about (former NFL running back) Jim Brown one time saying that he never got up fast, never got up slow,” Chase said. “He just got up when he was tackled because he never wanted anybody to know that he was hurt or they were getting to him. And that’s how I felt like Adam Oates was. It’s rare that you can play the game as long as Adam did and rarely see a guy get thrown off his game, where he’d respond or react to something another player did.
“Somebody might run at you and you say, ‘Would you (screw) off?’ But a guy would run or slash him and he wouldn’t respond. He’d just skate away. I think he intimidated teams because you’re like, ‘Well, how do you rattle this guy?’”
As it turned out, only a contract dispute rattled Oates. After he requested to renegotiate his original four-year, $3 million deal a second time, the Blues traded the center to Boston in February 1992 in exchange for Craig Janney and Stephane Quintal.
“That’s part of sports and part of the game, but it really (stunk),” Hull said. “We could have been a foundation for a number of years. Adding pieces to the pie to strive for that Stanley Cup in St. Louis would have been really something special. It was unfortunate.”
Oates would continue to put up mind-boggling numbers, including a career-high 142 points in 1992-93 with the Bruins, but many still wonder what Hull and Oates could have continued.
“Bobby Hull (Brett’s dad) said, ‘There would have been one guy shooting pucks in the net, and they would have needed two guys taking them out,’” Chase said. “It’s true. It was scary.”
Oates’ 1,420 points left him as the highest-scoring player in NHL history not to be in the Hall. His 156 playoff points are the most among players never to win a Stanley Cup. One of those distinctions will change tonight.
“I never put myself in the category of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, people I thought were special players,” Oates said. “Am I honored by it? Absolutely ... that somebody else puts me in that category. But I can’t say that I ever put myself in it.”
The Blues will be heavily represented at tonight’s ceremony. Owner Tom Stillman has offered his support for a group that will include Hull, Chase, Brown, Garth Butcher, Rick Zombo, Sergio Momesso, Gino Cavallini, Curtis Joseph and Terry Yake, among others.
“It’s important to be up there because, No. 1, Adam was such a great player and he’s a class guy,” Chase said. “As you get older, you realize how important guys like that are to the game. I believe he’s one of those guys. You look to him and say, ‘He’s a great representative for the NHL.”’