At 51, Adam Oates has been around hockey long enough to know that a coach can only go as far as his best players take him.
And if that means traveling more than halfway across the globe for a meeting of the minds with the face of the Capitals’ franchise and his heir apparent, he's literally willing to go the extra mile.
Last month, after exhausting his time on Florida’s finest golf courses, Oates and Capitals director of player development Steve Richmond embarked on a five-day journey to Russia, where they were wined and dined with Alex Ovechkin in Moscow and Evgeny Kuznetsov in Chelyabinsk.
Oates said he planned the trip after Ovechkin won the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s Most Valuable Player for the third time in his career.
“It was fantastic,” Oates said. “He won the Hart and there was no ceremony and I didn’t get to see him. I wanted to talk to him about it see his way of life.”
Oates’ first journey to Russia began with a six-hour flight to Munich, followed by a three-hour flight to Moscow, where Ovechkin met him and Richmond at the airport.
“It was intimidating because of the language and it was my first time,” Oates said. “It was great. He took care of us, from picking us up at the airport to taking us into the city.
“I didn’t know what to expect. But once we got downtown to the Kremlin, the architecture is gorgeous. You could see how the city is changing to a cosmopolitan type city.”
Ovechkin took Oates to a posh restaurant and gave him a tour of the Dynamo rink he played in as a youngster. They worked out together with Ovechkin’s trainer and went over film together, highlighting the benefits of Ovechkin’s move from left wing to right wing.
Mostly, however, it was a chance for Oates to get a glimpse of his soon-to-be-28-year-old captain’s way of life in Russia, which will place big demands on him as host of the 2014 Winter Olympics.
“He’s the man around there, so he took us into his thing,” Oates said. “It was a great experience. There’s pressure [on him] as far as family and himself and obviously he cares about his country. We try to respect that. We’re trying to figure out the puzzle along the way, so no one gets offended.”
Oates’ Russian excursion did not end in Moscow. After spending time with Ovechkin, he and Richmond caught a 3 1/2-hour flight to Chelyabinsk, where they spent two days with Kuznetsov, the Caps’ highly touted top pick in the 2010 draft.
At 21, Kuznetsov is considered one of the world’s best players not employed by the NHL. But after four seasons with Traktor Chelyabinsk of the KHL, the center/left wing has verbally committed to play for the Capitals, possibly as soon as the end of this season.
With that in mind, Oates thought it was imperative to meet with Kuznetsov for the first time.
“I was so far over there and I had never seen him play,” Oates said. “There’s a chance he’s going to be playing for us, so it was kind of a good will thing to let him know that we care. It was a good experience.”
In his time in Chelyabinsk, Oates saw Kuznetsov play in two games and twice had dinner with Kuznetsov and his wife. He said he was impressed with Kuznetsov’s grasp of the English language.
“He’s a super nice kid,” Oates said. “We talked hockey, about the games I just watched.”
Oates said he wanted to impress upon Kuznetsov that although they are thousands of miles away the Caps are there for Kuznetsov if he needs them.
“We’re around, no pressure,” Oates said. “At first I was worried [Traktor Chelyabinsk] might get upset I was there, but he’s told them he’s leaving.
“He took charge. He took care of us. He got us a hotel room. ... He’s more like Ovi. Outgoing, laughs, engaging, talkative.”
And, like, Ovechkin, Oates said Kuznetsov oozes with hockey talent.
“Yeah, I saw he’s a talented man, no question,” Oates said. “It’s tough, you don’t want to judge the hockey because it is different; they play a different style. But you can see he’s a real talented man.”
Like many Caps fans, Oates said he’s anxious to see Kuznetsov in a Capitals jersey, but he says that after three years of waiting, Kuznetsov is equally anxious to start his NHL career.
“He wants to test himself with the best, that’s what he said, which is a huge compliment,” Oates said. “Obviously, he’s thought about it [leaving the KHL for the NHL] because he’s well taken care of over there, and he wants to see how he can do in our hockey.”
Oates said his first journey to Russia was a taxing one – it took him two days to get home – but it’s one he’s thankful he took.
“Overall,” he said, “it was a great experience.”