In some ways, St. Louis Blues hockey in the early ‘90s was a lot like a blockbuster movie. The Old Arena served as the perfect theater to watch A-list star Brett Hull captivate audiences with one stellar performance after another.
If Hull was the Marlon Brando of Blues hockey, then Adam Oates was its Francis Ford Coppola.
“(Adam’s) the guy who wrote the movie and the screen play. I was acting in it,” Hull said.
From 1989-92, the linemates put on a show worthy of Oscar consideration every night. Over the course of nearly three seasons together in St. Louis, Hull scored 212 goals and Oates tallied 228 assists.
Now, Oates is finally getting the recognition he deserves. On Monday, he will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
“When you take a step back and you reflect, you’re getting grouped with people you looked up to and respected in the game,” Oates told stlouisblues.com. “I don’t think there’s any better honor for me than being grouped with Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Ray Bourque…the guys that I really respected in the game and wanted to make my game be like.”
Oates’ story practically belongs on the big screen. He was a high school dropout that focused entirely on chasing his dream of playing in the NHL, only to be passed on by every team on draft day. By his 19th birthday, he was working at a gas station and his childhood dream was dangling by a thread. "(I was) fighting with my dad about what I was going to do next," Oates recalled. They decided he would go back to school, and he eventually was recruited to play college hockey with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. While there, he finished as a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given each year to college hockey’s best player, and helped lead RPI to a national championship in 1985.
That caught the eye of quite a few NHL clubs, most notably Detroit, where he signed his first professional contract in 1985. He bounced between the Red Wings and their American Hockey League affiliate for awhile, and in 1989, was traded to the Blues for Bernie Federko and Tony McKegney.
In the deal, the Blues acquired a player that COO Bruce Affleck calls "the best pure passer I've ever seen."
“He was a fierce competitor. He is one of the most intelligent people that I’ve ever met on and off the ice,” said Hull, who had some of his best seasons with Oates passing him the puck. “You’ve got Gretzky, Lemieux and (Steve) Yzerman-type players, and he’s right there with them. He’s one of the (biggest) class acts that has ever been in this League, and his numbers alone say he’s a Hall of Famer.”
From the moment he arrived in St. Louis, Oates was placed on a line with Hull. Dubbed “Hull and Oates” after the famous ‘70s / ‘80s band “Hall and Oates,” the combo struck fear into opposing defenses and goaltenders. In less than three seasons together, Hull posted goal totals of 72, 86 and 54 (he would add 16 goals after Oates left in 1992, finishing with 70 in the 1991-92 season).
“It was an immediate connection we had, not only as hockey players, but as friends,” Hull said.
“As much as I loved to score goals, he loved to set up goals just as much. I’ve been told, and I’ve actually thought it myself, I could have (scored) 1,000 goals if I had kept playing with Adam.”
Said Oates, “I can’t believe it was 2 ½ years. It feels like forever that (Hull and I) were together. It was that magical. Every single day, I got to the go to the rink with my buddy and we had an incredible chemistry. Everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, and Brett and I knew ours and we knew how to make it work. That’s what made it special.”
Oates' ability to see the ice and make a perfect pass was likely the biggest reason for his success. He credits his soccer-playing father for teaching him that great passing led to the best scoring opportunities, and he used that lesson to develop as a hockey player.
"If you are a centerman, your job is to get your wingers the puck and get them to score goals," he said. "To this day, I still believe that's the centerman’s job...to distribute the puck."
A contract disagreement in February 1992 proved that real-life doesn't always result in a Hollywood ending. The Hull and Oates era ended with a trade to Boston, where Oates continued his success. He made a legend out of an already-gifted player in Cam Neely and would later do the same thing in Washington D.C. with Petr Bondra. Oates' glorious career lasted 19 seasons in which he recorded 100 or more points four times, played in five NHL All-Star Games, was a six-time finalist for the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy and was in large part responsible for Hull and Neely achieving the rare accomplishment of 50 goals in 50 games or less.
Overall, Oates played in 1,337 regular season games and scored 341 goals, 1,079 assists (good for sixth best in NHL history) and 1,420 points (16th all-time).
“I don’t think it’s conceivable that anybody would (think I’d be in the Hall of Fame),” Oates said. “Obviously a lot of fantastic things happened along the way. I’m a lucky man.
“Nineteen years," he added, pausing to reflect on the significance of the number. "I got to play this game for a long, long time. How lucky am I?”
His teammates will say they were lucky, too.
"Playing on the same line with Hull and Oates was the most fun I had during the years I spent in St. Louis," said former Blue and linemate Sergio Momesso.
But for 195 games, Blues fans were the biggest beneficiaries of Oates' amazing talent. They were dazzled by a player who seemingly came from nowhere, dished out plenty of beautiful passes to Hull, Momesso and many others, and to this day still ranks 10th all-time among the Blues' franchise assist leaders.
That's something worth rolling out the red carpet for.
Fans can watch Adam Oates at the 2012 Hockey Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony on Monday, Nov. 12 at 6:30 p.m. CT on NHL Network.
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