During his circuitous Hall of Fame playing career, Adam Oates developed hundreds of relationships with players, coaches, training staffs, management and, yes, even members of the media.
It all began, however, in Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, where Oates will visit as a head coach for the first time Friday night when the Capitals face off against the Red Wings [7:30 p.m., CSN].
In 1985, when Oates was a 21-year-old center at RPI, the Red Wings signed him to a four-year, $1.1 million contract that made him the highest-paid rookie in the NHL.
Oates spent parts of four seasons in the Motor City, establishing himself as a budding star with 199 points in his first 246 games.
“It was great,” he said. “Loved it.”
After his fourth season in Detroit, Oates was traded along with teammate Paul MacLean [now head coach of the Ottawa Senators], to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Bernie Federko and Tony McKegney.
“Broke my heart,” Oates said on Thursday.
Maybe, but the trade introduced Oates to Brett Hull and the two became one of the most dynamic forward pairs in NHL history.
Tonight in Detroit, Oates will be matched against Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, whose first year as an NHL coach was in 2002-03 with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Oates was a 40-year-old center on that team and was eight months older than his coach.
“We kind of butted heads a little bit at the beginning,” Oates said. “It was more because he didn’t know me and I was an older guy and sometimes older guys can be difficult.
“But once we got through the first couple months we hit it off great. He’s a very good coach. I learned a couple things off him and it was fun to work with a guy that explained things. That’s one of the things I took away from him.”
Those 2002-03 Ducks went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost to the New Jersey Devils in seven games. Oates, who was one season away from retirement, tied for the team lead in playoff scoring with 13 points.
Also on that team were MacLean, who was an assistant coach, and defenseman Dan Bylsma. All four men – Oates, Babcock, McLean and Bylsma – are now head coaches in the NHL.
Oates said he always enjoys going back to the Joe, which was built in 1979 and is the fourth-oldest arena in the NHL behind MadisonSquareGarden in New York, Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., and Rexall Place in Edmonton.
He said the arena carries a mystique, especially for first-time visitors like Caps rookies Tom Wilson, Nate Schmidt and Michael Latta.
“There is an intimidation factor,” Oates said. “There are a lot of banners up there [Stanley Cups in 1936, 1937, 1943, 1950, 1952, 1954, 1955, 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008] and a lot of famous players [Hall of Famers Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Terry Sawchuk, Alex Delvecchio, Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman].
“But on the flip side, enthusiasm conquers some of that. It’s a one-game elimination. You’re in awe, but you’re so excited those mistakes don’t show up and I’m hoping that’s the player I get.”