Bondra is one of several NHL thorough-breds to have been fed by Oates, who is the only player to center three 50-goal scorers (Bondra with 52 in 1997-98; Cam Neely with 50 for the '93-94 Bruins and Brett Hull with 86 in '90-91 and 72 in '89-90 for the St. Louis Blues). Oates is also the only one to center two players who scored 50 goals in 50 games ( Neely and Hull, the season he got 86). Oates, who has scored more than 20 goals only five times in his career, has been the unheralded B side to one '90s record after another. "He doesn't get as much publicity as the goal scorers," says Hull, "but he loves to watch you put the puck in the net. I never asked him why he didn't want to score more himself; I was afraid he'd change his mind."
Oates developed his passing fancy while sitting around the dinner table as a boy in Weston, Ont. Adam's father, David, grew up in the northwest of England idolizing soccer star Stanley Matthews, the Wizard of Dribble, who's widely regarded as the best English footballer ever. David told Adam vivid tales of Matthews's feats, all of which pointed up the fact that the soccer star made his name as a divine passer who rarely scored. When Adam started playing hockey and lacrosse, David implored him to "be like Stanley—unselfish."
This year Oates has spread his generosity among a hodgepodge of linemates, and his 80 points—already the second most ever for a player 38 or older—constitute his highest total since he had 92 in 1995-96. Oates takes good care of himself (chicken-and-pasta dinner and an early movie the night before games), but his sustained excellence is attributable in part to Wilson, who recognized his best player's needs and built around them. Last year Wilson implemented an unorthodox forechecking scheme that calls for Washington's centers to hang back while the wingers attack the puck. This enables Oates to conserve energy, and plays to his defensive strengths, which are founded more on positioning than on physical aggressiveness. "All our centers do it, but we devised the system for Adam," Wilson says. "If you get the most out of him, you get the most out of your team. He's 38.1 don't want him to get tired chasing the puck and then be compromised when he gets it."
Teammates treat Oates with similar deference, yet few know much more about him than what they've read in the Capitals' media guide: completed his degree from RPI in the 1991 off-season; enjoys golf. A loner—"I don't know what he does in his spare time," says his road roommate Jeff Halpern—Oates, who's single, slips quietly in and out of practices, his mien serious and intimidating. His cleft hunk of a jaw makes the pantheon of the NHL's memorable facial features, a composite that includes, from top to bottom: Mark Messier's domed forehead, Tie Domi's monobrow, Ed Belfour's ice-blue eyes, Mike Ricci's crooked nose and Ken Daneyko's fangs.
Oates doesn't slap bottoms or organize player lunches or invite the new guys over for a beer. After games he ducks into the shower before the media arrive in the dressing room, leaving the spokesman's role to players such as goalie Olaf Kolzig. "I got named captain before last season because of how I do things," says Oates. "I'm not going to change. I hope younger guys see that I treat this game with a lot of care and attention."
Players can glean lasting lessons simply from Oates's manner in practice, the way he executes each drill, no matter how routine, with meticulousness. One of Oates's best friends is pro golfer Mike Weir, and last summer Oates accompanied Weir to the British Open, where they stayed together in a rented house near St. Andrews. "We're in the driveway one day, just fooling around, whacking balls into a field across the road," Weir recalls. "The whole time Adam is saying things like, 'Weirsy, how's my grip? How's my posture?' " Weir would give him a suggestion or two, and then Oates would get quiet. He'd stare off for a few moments, angling his face the way he does, and then he would slowly step back in and address the ball. He hit it better and better as the day went on.
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