It’s a quip that has stood the test of time.
Fittingly, too, it comes from Brett Hull, the trigger man on plenty of one-liners and plenty of those pretty passes that have Adam Oates headed into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday.
“He loves to watch you put the puck in the net,” Hull told Sports Illustrated back in 2001, in a profile that shone a rare spotlight on the man who set up the majority of his 86 goals in a dream 1990-91 season. “I never asked him why he didn’t want to score more himself; I was afraid he’d change his mind.”
In hindsight, Hull likely had little to worry about.
While Oates is often remembered for his days with the St. Louis Blues, feeding Hull’s one-timer in the slot, the truth is the pair only lasted 195 regular-season games together in the city.
But his 286 points there – the bulk of them assists (228) – first established the undrafted late-bloomer as one of the game’s greatest playmakers, the beginnings of a career that would end 12 years later with an incredible 1,079 assists – more than all but five others in NHL history.
Oates never won a Stanley Cup, a major individual award or really much acclaim at all for one of the league’s top 20 scorers. (He sits 16th, six spots above Hull).
Those who he played for or he played with, however, say the Hall of Fame nod is finally just reward for a “brilliant” player who was often under-appreciated – and misunderstood – for most of his career.
“He really, really understands this game,” said Mike Addesa, Oates’s college coach with the RPI Engineers. “He’s just in the upper echelon of people who know hockey to the nth degree.”
“I’ve always said that he’s the most underrated player to ever play the game,” Hull said. “Although you can’t really say that now because he’s been put into the Hall of Fame.”
Oates’s beginnings weren’t like many others who have made the Hall. His parents had moved to Toronto from Blackpool, England, and rather than tales of Gordie Howe and the Original Six, his father’s sporting legends all involved soccer great Sir Stanley Matthews.
From an early age, David Oates told his two sons about Matthews’s feats, which included converting from a goal scorer to one of the best playmakers in his sport to help his team.
The lesson seemed to translate well enough from soccer to hockey.
“My Dad would tell me this story about this guy that would never shoot the ball,” the son recalls his father saying, “and that was his thing. It was kind of like the family story. And because I was a centreman, it kind of worked.”
Few scouts knew what to make of Adam Oates as a teen. He piled up assists wherever he played but wasn’t a strong skater and seemed a bit overweight.
Some felt he was aloof or even arrogant. No one thought he was a potential Hall of Famer, even by OHL standards.
Passed over by major junior save for one preseason game that nearly wiped out his U.S. college eligibility, Oates was 19 before Addesa came sniffing around the Markham, Ont., rink where he played junior, curious why so few saw the incredible vision and precision in his game.
Beyond his on-ice attributes, the coach discovered an excellent student and diligent worker, someone who would go on to transform his body and improve his skating at RPI, a small polytechnic university in Troy, N.Y.
“The way he made it to the top was so unlike everybody else,” said Addesa, who had to fight the NCAA to get Oates admitted and eventually became like a surrogate father. “It was almost like he had no place to go.”
“It was kind of a one-shot deal,” Oates said.
In his first season, Oates scored nearly two points a game. By his third, he had 91 points in 38 games and RPI won the national title.
Fifteen of the 21 NHL teams around at the time came calling, with five – the two New York teams, Washington, Minnesota and Detroit – all heavily in the hunt.
At 23, he signed what was at the time an eye-opening deal: a $1.1-million (U.S.), four-year rookie contract with a Red Wings team that went on to win 17 games and finish dead last that season.
From there, it was mostly up, with lengthy stops in Boston and Washington cementing his status as one of the game’s all-time greats given only Jaromir Jagr and Joe Sakic had more points during his decade in the two cities.
As it was in his junior days, Oates’s methods for success weren’t always easy to define. But no-nonsense coaches like Brian Sutter (in St. Louis) and Ron Wilson (in Washington) loved his attention to detail, with his faceoff ability (where he was consistently top 10 in the league), defensive play and positioning all underrated.
If Wayne Gretzky’s office was behind the net, Oates’s preferred to park his stapler high along the half boards, where he could survey who was headed where and pick out the perfect pass – just as he did when Hull netted his 50th in 49 games in their second season together.
Appropriately enough, as someone only too happy to provide assists, it’s moments like those he now picks out as career highlights.
“I got to play with two guys who scored 50 goals in 50 games,” Oates said, referencing Hull and Bruins linemate Cam Neely, both of whom will attend the induction ceremony with Ray Bourque. “It’s only been done a handful of times and I played with two of them.
“It was fantastic to be part of it. … I had the best seat in the house for both of them.”
Meanwhile, nearly 30 years after Oates left RPI, his former coach calls him one of the smartest men in hockey and wasn’t surprised in the least when he was named the Capitals head coach this summer.
Addesa sees Oates’s future eventually being in management, where he can watch the games unfold from on high, picking up on things no one else can and making a play.
“[Former Bruins teammate] Steve Leach once told me he wished he could have played every game of his career with him,” Addesa said. “That it was unbelievable how easy he made the game for you.”
“Just the way he played, he was above everyone else,” Hull said. “That’s why people get 1,000 assists – because you’re smarter than the other guys on the ice.”
Second in a series about the Hockey Hall of Fame’s class of 2012. The series started with the Globes’ Roy MacGregor. Friday: Pavel Bure Saturday: Mats Sundin Monday: Joe Sakic