When a 40-year-old Adam Oates joined the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in 2002, his teammates ranged from a six-time 30-goal scorer in Paul Kariya, to a fellow veteran in Steve Thomas, to a soft spoken French Canadian goalie in Jean-Sebastien Giguere.
There was also a journeyman forward known as ‘Disco Dan’ Bylsma, who at 32 years of age had never scored more than 17 points in a single NHL season.
While Oates was busy feeding 50-goal scorers Brett Hull and Cam Neely in St. Louis and Boston, Bylsma spent much of the 1990s riding busses with such teams as the Greensboro Monarchs (ECHL), Moncton Hawks (AHL) and Long Beach Ice Dogs (IHL).
Their paths could not have been more different, but Oates and Bylsma had both seen and experienced a whole lot of hockey. Discussing the game in great detail and breaking down upcoming opponents was of mutual interest and a bond was quickly developed between the hockey lifers.
Ten years later, Oates and Bylsma now collect paychecks to analyze and teach the game, and tonight from Pittsburgh’s CONSOL Energy Center, the one-time teammates will meet for the second time in five days as NHL head coaches.
“I'm not surprised to see Adam go down the same road,” said Bylsma, now in his fifth season as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“He certainly has the mentality for it. A skilled, highly-skilled player, but kind of a real nuts and bolts coach, a real X and Os guy. I know he's worked real well with power plays the past couple years [as an assistant coach in Tampa Bay and New Jersey]. I'm not surprised to see him over there.”
Bylsma was plenty familiar with Oates’ skill level and on-ice accomplishments when the five-time All-Star joined the Mighty Ducks in 2002, but it was the future Hall-of-Famer’s hockey I.Q. that most impressed the bottom-six forward.
“You don't know exactly what you're going to get from a star player of that caliber when you get to play with him,” Bylsma explained.
“But he was a guy who every road trip, he and I would get off the plane and go find a coffee shop and we'd call it 'Hot Stove.' We Hot Stove'd for an hour, two hours before dinner, and we did that every road trip. So I spent a lot of time with Adam talking about the game, our team and the 'Hot Stove' in hockey.”
The road trips and Hot Stove discussions would extend into June as the Mighty Ducks reached Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals before falling to the New Jersey Devils. It’s the closest Oates has ever come to lifting Lord Stanley’s mug.
“We had a great year,” Oates said. “We ended up losing Game 7 of the finals, and Disco and I got along really well. We talked a lot. We sat next to each other on the plane and on the bus. He’s a very smart guy, as we know. We had some very smart conversations with him and a real good time.”
Oates never reached the post-season again and played one more season with the Edmonton Oilers in 2003-04. Bylsma meanwhile, played 11 more games with the Mighty Ducks that same year before ending his playing career with the team’s AHL affiliate in Cincinnati in 2004.
Less than a year later, Bylsma was already onto the next phase of his life, accepting an assistant coaching position with Cincinnati. He has worked behind the bench ever since.
Oates on the other hand stepped away from the game, before returning as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009-10.
Despite the time away from hockey, Bylsma never doubted that Oates would someday lead an NHL team.
“He's a guy who saw the game at an extremely high level,” Bylsma said, “but he's also a guy who I related to in terms of him applying [what he saw] to our coach, our situation, our team and a lot of different things. And I think he's been kind of a student of the game as well in the last couple years with his coaching and coaching power plays and he’s translating it into [his current job].”