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Adam Oates is steering his black Mercedes through morning traffic on the Beltway. Dressed in sneakers, jeans, a navy sweatshirt and a yellow baseball cap, he drives much the way he plays for the Washington Capitals, moving opportunistically but unaggressively from lane to lane, occasionally making a smooth, well-calculated pass. He holds a cup of coffee in his right hand. "So did you hear that some guy gave $360 million to my alma mater?" says Oates, who has a management degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. "It's the largest donation ever by an individual to a university, but get this...." Oates pauses, sips his drink and thrusts out his sculpted jaw. He checks the rearview mirror before continuing. "The guy gave the money anonymously. So he sets this record, but nobody knows who he is. Kind of mysterious."
Oates, who is the least, recognized of the certain Hall of Famers in the NHL today and who has set or is about to set numerous team and NHL records, knows from mystery. How is it, for example, that Oates, whom RPI coach Mike Adessa once affectionately called "a stumpy, heavy-footed, poor-skating, no-shooting kid," is in his 16th NHL season and through Sunday had 961 career assists (ninth alltime) and 1,277 career points (22nd)? How is it that at 38, Oates, who's still a slow skater, was tied for the league lead with 67 assists—more than any other player his age or older has had in one season?
How could Oates, whom Washington coach Ron Wilson calls "the smartest player I've ever seen," have gone undrafted? How does Oates captain the Southeast Division-leading Capitals (39-25-10-4) so effectively without raising his voice? Where does he get the energy, at his age, to center Washington's top line, play more than 21 minutes a night and dominate on face-offs? (He had won 58.6% of his draws this year, fifth in the league.) How does he do any of it with that sawed off, misshapen stick he uses? And who, behind that aloof exterior, is Adam Oates, anyway?
"Whenever I go to a new team, a lot of guys ask me what it's like to play with Adam Oates," says Phoenix Coyotes center Jo� Juneau, a teammate of Oates's with the Boston Bruins from 1991-92 through '93-94 and in Washington from '96-97 through '98-99. "He's quiet and people don't know much about him, but they see what a smart player he is and they want to know what he's like. They really want to know what's up with his sticks. Those things are the ugliest in the league."
Oates runs through four dozen black Sher-Woods a month, and the ones he tosses away after a single heft (about half, simply because he doesn't like their feel) are spared his indelicate touch. "There's no science to it," Oates says of how he shapes his sticks. "I take each one, go to work on it and hope I can make it feel how I want it to feel."
The way Oates goes to work on his stick would get Bob Vila jazzed. The tools he uses include a handsaw, a jigsaw, a baby hammer, a large hammer, a vise grip, a sander and a blowtorch. First he chops off the toe of the blade to square it (a unique, superstitious practice he began 10 years ago), then he sands the base of the blade until it's flat ("When you're in the corner and your stick is against the wall, you can still keep a lot of blade on the ice," Oates explains), and then he saws, bends, twists, massages and burns the blade until it feels the way he wants it to. The process takes Oates about 15 minutes per stick.
"That's just another example of how he's always trying to do whatever little thing he can to get an edge," says Wilson. "If Adam notices something in a game, he adjusts right away. Even if it's only how somebody is holding his stick. He takes the information, processes it and puts it to use. The thing about Adam is that he assimilates a lot of stuff at once. Most guys might see one or two things, and the rest is a blur."
Oates's processing skills, as well as his sure hands, have made him the second-best passer of his time and the player most commonly compared with the best, Wayne Gretzky. Like other on-ice visionaries, Oates changes speeds and uses subtle shifts in movement and positioning to put defenders off balance. He likes to bring the puck to just inside the offensive zone—a spot off the left half-boards is a particular favorite—where he can dish with either his forehand or backhand. The more options the better, which is what makes Oates so dangerous when the Capitals have a man advantage. (His 35 power-play assists also were leading the league at week's end.)
"If you take away Oates, you pretty much take away everyone on the ice," says Capitals center Trevor Linden, who had played against Oates for 12 years before Washington acquired Linden from the Montreal Canadiens last month. "It's hard because he's so aware. You shut off one passing lane, and he finds another."
Oates has been working the angles and lines since his earliest youth-league shifts and maintains an unshakable grasp of the geometry around him, an understanding that he describes as innate. What has developed over time is not so much his sense of where to deliver the puck but how and when he'll put it on a teammate's stick. "We're playing the Rangers last month, and I make a move and I'm thinking, Wow, I wish I had the puck right now," says Capitals wing Peter Bondra. "I look down, and Adam's sending it right onto my tape, perfect as usual. Boom! I one-timed it into the net."