Craig Petter | May 15th, 2020
“My dad always said: ‘a centreman’s job is to disperse the puck, share it…’”
High school physics teachers usually deploy the word ‘dispersion’ in reference to refracting light through a prism, where a single beam scatters into multicolored spurts. The process projects a rainbow because dispersion shows the individual wavelengths swirling within the single white light so they gleam and glitter on their own.
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It follows that Adam Oates would invoke such a verb while describing his own style of play after he was named to the NHL’s Greatest 100 Players list. A compulsive passer whose assist totals routinely tripled the number of goals he scored, Oates used his elite playmaking abilities to showcase his teammates. Over 22 NHL seasons, Oates dished up some of the prettiest passes in hockey history upon which his linemates would gorge by racking up goals.
His team was the white light. His wingers composed the colours of the rainbow. Oates served as the prism whose playmaking properties let them shine. Now, eight years since his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the dispersive expert deserves another spotlight.
NHL Tenure: Detroit Red Wings- 4 seasons, 1985-1989 / St. Louis Blues- 3 seasons, 1989-1992 / Boston Bruins- 5 seasons, 1992-1997 / Washington Capitals- 5 seasons, 1997-2002 / Philadelphia Flyers- 1 season, 2001-2002 / Anaheim Mighty Ducks- 1 season, 2002-2203 / Edmonton Oilers- 1 season, 2003-2004
NHL All-Star Appearances: 5
Hockey Hall of Fame Induction: 2012
The Mastermind at Work
Adam Oates flourished as one of the greatest playmakers in NHL history because he devoted all his skills to applying an unshakeable selfless attitude. Most hockey players talk the collectivist team-first talk, but Oates truly walked the inglorious pass-first walk.
Oates cites his soccer fanatic father as the source of his generous hockey instincts, as success playing the former hinges on tactful passing. So Oates played with the primary aim of creating space and opportunities for his teammates to score. When he carried the puck across the blueline, it was with sharp eyes and a swivelling neck that immediately pinpointed his streaking wingers. Oates never glanced at the puck on his stick. With the poise of an NBA point guard he merely led the rush and either flung, dropped or lofted the puck over to a teammate. His wingers enjoyed manifold simple tap-in goals because Oates passed the puck with dynamite vision and precision that always found an unmarked man.
Beyond exclusively setting up his teammates, Oates boasted quick, soft hands and a certain penchant for faceoffs. He will always be remembered, however, for being smart. The most valuable tool in his box was not his stick or his skates, but a calculating mind. He did not merely see open teammates but forged his own elusive routes with the puck to draw defenders out and make them open. Deceptive and cunning, Oates succeeded as a playmaker because he effortlessly executed his selfless mentality. While most hockey players make passes, Adam Oates computed them with a cerebral edge to his game that very few superstars ever matched.
Before he bloomed in Missouri as half of the infamous ‘Hull and Oates’ duo, Oates entered the NHL as an undrafted rookie with the Detroit Red Wings in 1985. He previously played three dazzling seasons of college hockey for the RPI Engineers. In his third season, Oates shattered his own program records for assists and points, won the national championship and contended as a Hobey Baker Award finalist. Numerous NHL teams noticed his success, but the Red Wings ultimately bid the highest and snagged him as a rookie. After two mediocre seasons, Oates eventually betrayed his starry promise with a 78-point year. Before he could erupt in Detroit though, the Red Wings (since-regrettably) traded him to the St. Louis Blues.
The year before Oates arrived in St. Louis, Brett Hull scored 41 goals to finish 21st in NHL scoring. Once conjoined with Oates on the top line in St. Louis, Hull leapt to 72 goals to lead the entire league. The next season, with Oates still anchoring him and feeding the right-winger pristine pass after pristine pass, Hull sniped 86 to claim the highest total in NHL history from any player not named Wayne Gretzky. Idiots called it a coincidence, diehard Blues fans called it cosmic; regardless of the roots of their union, Brett Hull and Adam Oates clicked for 2 and a half seasons as the most dangerous tandem in all of hockey.
Swerving the camera back to Oates and zooming in on his output in St. Louis, his totals skyrocketed while he played alongside Hull for the Blues. Oates finished the 1989-1990 season with 79 assists and 102 points, his first dash across the triple-digit production ribbon while placing 3rd in the NHL in assists behind Gretzky and Mark Messier. Mirroring Hull’s amplified goal-scoring the next season, Oates astonished with another 90 assists and 115 points across merely 61 games; only Gretzky boasted more assists, and Oates squeaked his way onto the podium for total NHL scoring for the first time in his career.
Although his name lay beside elite numbers on the scoresheets in St. Louis, Oates did not consider the digits on his paychecks equivalent to that output. After vocalizing his concerns midway through the 1991-1992 season, Oates flew east on a trade as the budding first-line centreman for the Boston Bruins.
Alongside notorious power forward Cam Neely, Oates exploded in the 1992-1993 season for a monstrous 45 goals, 97 assists and 142 points as a fresh Bruin. That year marked the first time where he ousted the likes of Messier and Mario Lemieux to compile the most assists in the entire league. His single-season production totals peaked in every category that season, much to the chagrin of St. Louis residents. One year later, Oates notched 80 assists of which plenty contributed to Neely posting 50 goals in 49 games on his wing. If a genuinely great centreman elevates likewise gifted wingers to legendary status, Oates proved his playmaking skills equally phenomenal in Boston as St. Louis.
In his fifth season in Boston, Oates toppled a domino that rippled into a spontaneous trade yet again, venting frustrations about his contract and the team’s lack of success. The Bruins shipped the 34-year-old to the Washington Capitals in the final quarter of the 1996-1997 season, where Peter Bondra flanked him on his right side. United for the entire next season, Oates supported Bondra en route to a league-leading 52 goal season. Aside from Oates, no NHL centreman has ever played alongside three separate 50-goal scorers across the breadth of his career. The Capitals pushed all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals that season before getting swept by the same Detroit Red Wings franchise with whom Oates debuted in 1985.
While most hockey players witness their accolades peter out as they age, Adam Oates garnered some of his brightest distinctions as he crept towards 40. After he assumed the captaincy in Washington for the 1999-2000 campaign, Oates boasted the most assists in the league for the two following years. Although he was 38 and 39 years old for each respective season, the recent retirements and regressions of players like Gretzky and Messier paved the way for him to lounge atop the NHL’s playmaking throne.
Age eventually pumped the brakes on his output too though, and after brief stints for the Philadelphia Flyers, Anaheim Mighty Ducks and Edmonton Oilers, Oates retired in 2004. Eight years later, the Hockey Hall of Fame announced the generational passer as their newest inductee.
Most Unselfish Player in NHL History?
Broad titles like ‘greatest playmaker of all time’ and ‘greatest passer of all time’ stoke little debate in the hockey world. Wayne Gretzky holds every assist record imaginable, and none of them entertain any strong notions of approachability. Beyond playmaking though, Gretzky also scored more goals than anyone else in NHL history, fattening his sphere of dominance to basically every domain of the game as the greatest player ever. Simply put, Gretzky did it all better than anyone else.
To complicate the conversation and animate the argument then, could Adam Oates be the greatest pure, keyword being pure, passer in NHL history? As in the single player who excelled as a passer to such unfathomable depths that his assists monumentally eclipsed every other stat? Can anyone else counter the sheer unique calibre of Adam Oates as a playmaking specialist?
Oates concluded his NHL career with 341 goals and 1079 assists, the latter statistic hailing as the 8th-highest career assists total in NHL history. So 7 players tallied more cumulative assists than him over their careers, but Oates played fewer total games than any player in the top ten. In fact, his career average of 0.807 assists per game ranks the second-highest of any player in NHL history with over 1000 games under his belt, only trailing behind Gretzky. During his decade of dominance that was the 1990s though, Oates recorded more assists than anyone else… Gretzky included. Plus, he produced at a rate that collected 3.2 assists for every goal he scored, the most lopsided assists-to-goals ratio of any player on that top ten list.
Oates’ unparalleled unselfishness as a hockey player thereby was, truly and literally, exceptional.
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Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images