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CAPITALS: Intelligence, Experience Gave Adam Oates An Edge
It wasn’t more than six games into the 2000-01 season, to the best of George McPhee’s understanding, when Adam Oates approached Ron Wilson in the lobby of a hotel and suggested the coach have Peter Bondra man the point on the Washington Capitals’ power plays.
Wilson, naturally, was skeptical of the idea, and peppered his captain with questions. Oates had answers, just as he always seemed to, and that season, when the Capitals won the Southeast Division, Bondra finished with a league-high 22 power play goals.
“You want intelligent guys running the bench,” McPhee, the Capitals’ general manager, said Wednesday at Verizon Center, where the team held a press conference to introduce Oates as its next head coach. “A guy like Bill Belichick, [the NFL coach] in New England, he’s a bright guy, and you try to get the smartest guy in the room. I just think that with Adam’s understanding of this game, his ability to articulate, he’ll be that guy.”
The story about Wilson was one of several that came up in a six-week process to find a replacement for Dale Hunter, who announced in mid-May he would not return as the Capitals’ head coach. McPhee said he talked to players, coaches, executives and even referees about the qualifications of potential candidates, but in the end, it all came back to Oates.
“It’s an honor to be here today – a day that I thought would never happen, when I’m a member of the Washington Capitals again,” Oates said.
Known as one of the game’s best offensive minds – the Hockey Hall of Fame announced Tuesday that Oates will be a part of its Class of 2012 – the 49-year-old center played 19 seasons in the NHL with seven teams, including six seasons with the Capitals. He was a five-time all-star and a six-time Lady Byng Trophy finalist who retired in 2004 ranked sixth all-time with 1,079 assists.
Oates spent the next five years entirely out of hockey before he became an assistant with Tampa Bay just before the 2009-10 season began. He was an assistant for New Jersey for the last two seasons, and was credited with turning around the team’s power play and helping winger Ilya Kovalchuk develop into more of a two-way player.
The Capitals called not more than a few days after the Devils lost to Los Angeles in the Stanley Cup Finals to arrange an interview, and when Oates received a call back from the organization early Tuesday with a job offer, he joked it took him maybe five seconds, or maybe even when he answered the phone, to accept.
McPhee made the offer based on “a long checklist” of hockey-centered qualities he desired in a head coach – chiefly among them his experience and his intelligence. Capitals owner Ted Leonsis was similarly in favor of Oates – an impression that dated back a decade when Oates was a player and Leonsis had just purchased the team.
“Adam was always like a coach on the ice, and I would say, as a player, he was one of the few players who, as a new owner, talked to me about hockey, explained to me what was going on,” Leonsis said. “As a new owner, I was very, very appreciative of that.”
Oates’ task now will be to find a way not only to return the Capitals to the playoffs for the sixth consecutive season, but to take them further than the Eastern Conference semifinals. McPhee referred to Oates as a difference-maker; Leonsis said the team’s mission and its “collective goal” is to win the Stanley Cup.
That challenge inherently includes helping Alex Ovechkin return to his status as one of the league’s elite offensive players. Oates acknowledged Ovechkin, whom he called a “special player,” already called to offer his congratulations on the hiring – a move that appears to show the star winger’s support after he clashed with Hunter at times last season.
McPhee is confident that despite his inexperience as a head coach – the upcoming season will mark the first time Oates has that title at any level – his experiences as a player will help him command respect from his players.
Oates, likewise, is confident. Though adapting to being a head coach will be a change, the leadership and ability is something he’s exhibited for years.
“When the players walk in and see your work ethic, your intensity, knowledge, they become believers,” Oates said. “When you go out on the ice and you can show them things that add to their game, I think that just helps the cause, and when you live it every day, I think that just adds to it as well. But you have to earn their respect, and I think that’s part of the process.”
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