His teammates and coaches at RPI soon realized what they had in their freshman center. There were reasons Oates wasn’t drafted from juniors. He wasn’t a particularly fast skater. He wasn’t overly powerful.
“When I first saw him, he was a little bit disheveled,” said Magnuson, Oates’s best friend to this day. “I looked at him and said, ‘Really?’ ” But when the RPI captains held practices that fall, without coaches, “he’d have two goals and three assists, and you never really saw him,” Magnuson said. “He’s one of those invisible players. But God, was he productive.”
By his sophomore year, Addesa was so impressed with Oates’s acumen that he began asking Oates about strategy. The results led directly to a career Oates believes he would never have had without Addesa: 83 points in 38 games as a sophomore, 91 points in 38 games as a junior, when the Engineers won the 1985 national championship. That spring, he signed as a free agent with the Detroit Red Wings. The next season, he made his NHL debut. And four years later came the move that shaped the rest of his career.
“When I got traded, it hurt,” Oates said. “It hardened me.”
It was June 1989. Oates was 26 and coming off his best season to date, the first of 10 in which he averaged more than a point per game. The Red Wings sent him to St. Louis in a four-player trade. Thus began one of the defining traits of Oates’s life: transition.
Oates did not yet know of the magic he would make with Brett Hull with the Blues, the back-to-back seasons with a total of 217 points. What he knew was how the move scarred him.
“From then on, it’s business,” Oates said. “Yeah, we can talk cliches all we want. ‘We’re gonna win for the ‘Blue Note’ and all that. And yep, I played 100 percent. But it’s still business. Until you’ve been traded, you don’t know what it’s like on the other side.”
Oates started to examine the financial side of the game. Hull, who scored 72 goals in 1989-90 and 86 more in 1990-91 — the third- and ninth-highest totals of all-time, so many of them off Oates’s passes — was understandably the highest-paid Blue. Oates had signed a four-year, $3.2 million deal, and in the meantime the Blues paid two players, Brendan Shanahan and Garth Butcher, more. Oates not only felt that was unfair, but believed it didn’t offer assurances if his career was over in his early 30s, as many were back then.
“I could be retired in five years,” Oates said. “I don’t own my house.”
So Oates did what so many athletes have done before and since. “I have to do what’s best for Adam Oates and his family,” he said in February 1992, even as he was single and — as he is now — without children. By that time, the situation had spilled onto the ice, with Coach Brian Sutter occasionally taking Oates off Hull’s line. He engaged in frank discussions with fans on his situation, asking a teacher on a call-in radio show if she would turn down an offer from the school across the street to double her salary. “Of course not!” he said. Later that month, the Blues met Oates’s demand and dealt him to Boston, which restructured his contract.
“Maybe the fact of how he ended up playing in the National Hockey League factored in,” said Cam Neely, who became a teammate of Oates with the Bruins. “Maybe saying, to a degree, that he’s proving people wrong. It’s easy to sit back and listen to people say, ‘You can’t do this or that. Go off into the sunset.’ Or you can say, ‘I can do this. I’ll show you.’ ”
It was not terribly different after Oates played parts of six seasons with the Bruins. He became a member of the team’s axis with Neely and defenseman Ray Bourque — both Hall of Famers — but grew unhappy with the direction of the franchise. Neely was benched one game — forced to sit, in uniform, but not play — a move backed by management. Oates watched Bourque compete every night despite debilitating injuries. He considered it all unjust, and again, he wasn’t happy with his contract.
“I’m like, ‘Pay me,’ ” Oates said. “ ‘No.’ ‘Well, then, I wanted to be traded.’ ‘[Expletive] you.’ What’s a player’s option then? You got to mouth off to the press. You got to force the issue.”
So Oates did, telling the Boston papers that the franchise wasn’t treating the fan base well. That set the foundation for the trade that sent him to Washington, where he initially refused to report. Yet his squabbles, he said, never affected his play on the ice. “I could separate it,” he said. “I really could.” Teammates and opponents alike second that opinion.