“The interesting thing about Adam that I thought really separated him from a lot of players was how mentally focused he was,” said McPhee, who inherited Oates’s sticky situation from David Poile, who was fired as Capitals general manager after the 1996-97 season. “He never made mental mistakes. He always seemed to make the right play, or an even better play than you expected.”
It all has something to do with the way he processes information, quickly and surely. That could be, in a previous life, playing the puck off the half-boards before laying it into the perfect spot — not just to a body, but right side for a right-handed shooter, left side for a lefty — to set up a goal. It could be now, as he prepares to combine his past as an outspoken player with his present as a leader of all types of personalities and abilities.
“I believe in communication,” Oates said. “I can’t be a hypocrite. I don’t want to be a hypocrite as a coach. For example, we have a work stoppage. It happens. It happened this summer to the teachers in Chicago. It’s life.
“If one of my players has a situation, I will talk to him about, ‘It’s your situation. As long as you show up for work, and you can separate it, great. If you need someone to talk to, I’m here. But it’s your business.’ ”
That, Oates knows well, is the business of hockey. But when he retired, he didn’t expect hockey to be his business anymore.
“I asked my wife,” Oates said, “ ‘Can I have two years to see how good I can become as a golfer?’ ”
When Oates retired from hockey in 2004, he was 41, and his right knee was sore. Twice he had torn the abdominal muscles on his right side. Doctors had taken a tendon from his wrist and put it in his right index finger, and though the surgical solution offered function, pain still shot all the way to his shoulder.
But he loved golf. As a Red Wing, he had befriended fellow Canadian Mike Weir, who went on to win the 2003 Masters. Once he retired, though, this was not a casual relationship with an avocation. “He was on that range for 12 hours a day,” Magnuson said.
As he worked near his home in Palm Springs, Calif., the goal was to play competitively as a pro. But Oates began thinking about golf differently. He had to adapt to playing with all his ailments, so he learned about the body. He then explored how the body relates to the golf swing. After maybe 18 months, he knew he wouldn’t be good enough to be a professional player, but he understood enough about the swing to offer advice to even elite pros.
“He’s got a great knowledge of stuff, but he’s not a guy who forces it on you. He’s very analytical, but it’s almost as much about feel — how it feels to you on the golf course or on the ice,” PGA Tour veteran Brett Quigley said. “Golf-wise, I’d equate him to half Nick Faldo,” the Englishman known for his metronome of a swing, “and half Seve Ballesteros,” the flashy and creative Spaniard.
Over the past five years, Oates and Quigley have grown close — to the point that, more than a dozen times, Oates has caddied for Quigley on tour. He made his debut in 2010 in New Orleans, tracking the wind, talking Quigley into one club or another. He has focused the chatty Quigley on the practice range, and along the way experienced things completely foreign from hockey. One Sunday at Jack Nicklaus’s Memorial tournament outside Columbus, Ohio, Quigley was near the top of the leader board, playing with Australian Adam Scott. Oates walked onto the first tee, surrounded by fans, uncertain even about opening a bottle of water lest he make too much noise.
“I had to put my shades on I was so nervous,” Oates said. “It’s such a cool thing for me because hockey is all noise. Golf is silent. The silence is incredible. It’s really cool for me to concentrate differently.”
Ostensibly, Oates will eventually have to concentrate as a head coach. When he interviewed for the Capitals job in June at the NHL draft in Pittsburgh, McPhee remembers thinking, about 10 minutes into a session that lasted a few hours, “Wow. I think we’ve got our guy.”
The Capitals have him now. When that matters, nobody knows. He tries to do something regarding his new job every day, watching video or going over potential strategy. But you want his opinion on the lockout? “I’m not trying to solve it,” he said.
Even with no hockey, he has other issues to analyze, because his mind just works that way. That, then, is what we know about Adam Oates, even before he coaches a game.
“I’ve always been a guy,” he said, “who’s thinking.”