December 17, 2012

NHL: Oates still all business

Barry Svrluga The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- Adam Oates should have risen Sunday morning and drove to the top floor of the Ballston Common Mall's parking deck in Arlington, Va., pulled into his spot at Kettler Capitals Iceplex almost unconsciously, with so much else filling a mind that processes information nimbly. He should be reviewing Saturday night's game against the Tampa Bay Lightning and thinking ahead to tonight's against the Florida Panthers, both scheduled for Verizon Center in Washington, both canceled. He should have 30 games as an NHL head coach behind him. He has zero.

So he comes to Kettler with no official agenda, no power-play problem that needs fixing and no star whose ego needs stroking. The few players who skate at the Washington Capitals' practice facility show up inconsistently, and even when they do, he's not allowed to provide conversation, much less instruction. He has no practices, no morning skates, no games. He is not a coach-in-waiting, but rather a coach, just waiting.

"Right now, we're sitting by the phone hoping something's going to happen," Oates said this past week. His mind, though, is not one to be idle, so he goes to the Capitals' Arlington training facility, watches video with his fellow coaches, tries to talk the game that he's willing to talk, according to General Manager George McPhee, "24 hours a day." But the NHL's owners have locked out their players, and there is no telling when his career will actually begin.

So this immersion into Washington's sports scene is, by no fault of his own, difficult. It was difficult 15 years ago, too, when Oates was traded from the Boston Bruins to Washington, held out when he arrived in midseason, then initiated a contract squabble in the summer.

He seems a quiet man, 50 now, his T-square of a jaw and a scar under his lower lip making him look like nothing other than a hockey lifer. As of last month, he is a Hall of Famer, even as he filled the NHL void by helping coach the Capitals' top minor league affiliate for six weeks. And up until now, he rarely met a transitional period that he couldn't make tumultuous. Not with sinister intent. But he is always evaluating situations -- his own, his team's, the league's. And that leads to conclusions, conclusions he has little trouble disclosing.

"If it's wrong, it's wrong, and I say it," Oates said last month. "Sometimes to a fault, I say it. I'm mouthy in a different way, sometimes."

In a playing career that lasted 19 seasons, Oates was traded four times and pulled on the sweaters of seven franchises. He knows management -- good and bad -- and what a lack of communication can do to a player and a team. Because he isn't approaching his 31st game as a coach, but still awaits his first, the Capitals and their fans don't yet know his style for sure. But it won't be to bottle up candor, even if it stays in the dressing room between player and coach, even if it is delivered with a whisper rather than a scream.

"When you say something, you got to back it up," Oates said. "It's weird, because I'm a guy that really respects authority, chain of command, structure. I do. I'm one of those guys."

We should be learning, right now, about how those opposite pulls -- an outspoken company man? -- play out as the leader of a hockey team. Instead, Oates' past -- as one of history's most prolific and savvy playmakers, as one of its most analytic minds and, simultaneously, one of its most willing cage rattlers -- will have to serve as a predictor for his future as a head coach, whenever that future might start.

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