Washington Capitals head coach Adam Oates had a long, insightful interview with CBC’s After Hours’ Scott Oake and Kelly Hrudey following the Caps’ 5-2 loss to the Calgary Flames. Oates could have been a big curmudgeon after his team’s embarrassing loss on Hockey Night In Canada. Instead, he was open, honest, and he gave insight into his long playing career and the way he coaches his players.
If I had unlimited time with Capitals players, this is exactly the type of interview I’d want to conduct. Maybe with a few more jokes.
Oates talks in detail about Ovechkin’s renaissance under his tutelage. He defends Braden Holtby‘s angry shouting at the bench after being pulled. He defends his comments about Tomas Hertl‘s “disrespectful” between-the-legs goal. He shares a humorous story from his Caps playing days about he and Calle Johansson‘s beef at practices. He even gets asked about his resemblance to actor Ray Liotta.
Oates comes on at the 6:15 mark.
Oake: Braden Holtby was chased in the first period. You make a goaltending change for a particular reason: some goaltenders welcome a mercy pull, but that was early in the game and he didn’t see it that way. What were you thinking?
Oates: We scored a goal. They get one back. Three goals in the first period and you know, you’re looking for a spark. Quite honestly, I’m glad he’s mad. He’s yelling at everybody. I am [happy with that reaction]. He’s a competitor, he cares, and he’s pissed off. I don’t want it any other way.
Hrudey: Have you made up your mind for Monday’s start in Vancouver?
Oates: I’m sure we’ll talk about it. He’s our man. He’s been our man. I’m not going to change that feeling.
Oake: He didn’t score tonight, but Alexander Ovechkin looks like The Great Eight. He’s got the numbers to prove it now. 32 goals in 32 games going back to last season. Let’s not forget, early last season people were willing to write him off as a force in the game at the age of 28. Clearly you did not feel that way. How did you get on the same wavelength as him?
Oates: Communication. We’ve talked since day one, he and I, that we’re going to have an open relationship. We spend a lot of time together: a lot of time talking hockey, a lot of time talking individually. I’ve told him that when [our conversations] are in my room, they are private. I promised to him I’ll never share our conversations. But when he comes out in the locker room, you’re one of the guys. You’re part of the team. Since that day, we’ve started and we’ve built. As I’ve said before, I give him a lot of credit. He changed positions for the organization moving to the right side. I told him I thought it would give him more freedom and more touches of the puck — he would have the puck more — and it took a little while to get going, but once it did, he started to get some success. I’m obviously glad for it and he’s sold to it now. And in the last 30 or so games, he’s gotten more and more touches each night.
Oake: Let’s take a tweet. With you having played in the scoring era, does it help you understand Ovi and what you need to do for him to succeed as of late?
Oates: You know, he’s a goal scorer and I was fortunate enough to play with a lot of good ones. He reminds me a lot of Brett Hull. He has physical elements that Brett didn’t have. They both are very similar to me and being able to communicate that and talk about it and knowing — just spending so much time with Brett — knowing where he was all over the ice, you know, I’m always looking for ways to get him and the rest of our team open.
Hrudey: About three years ago, it looked to me like when Ovechkin would be at the rink, [he looked like he was] just going to work. He did not look like he was having a lot of fun. Was that one of your goals, to make the game more enjoyable to him again?
Oates: You know what? You played the game. You know what it’s like and he gets paid in his mind to score goals to be successful for this franchise. When it’s not going your way, it’s difficult. It becomes a job. It becomes a grind. And part of my job is to make him have success for him and the organization.
Oake: One of the hottest debates in this young NHL season was Tomas Hertl’s fourth goal in San Jose’s shellacking of the Rangers and if it embarrassed the opposition. You made clear that this goal between the legs “disrespected the game.” Are you still firm in that opinion?
Oates: You know what? The way I was asked the question by our media, they said,”Did you see it.” “Yeah.” My first answer was that the coach benched him after that, which I thought was a great play by Todd McLellan, because he’s a young kid and the game’s not that easy. I know it’s four goals and it’s a gorgeous goal, but don’t ever get ahead of yourself in terms of the game. You know what? I shouldn’t of [said what I said] in a sense that it’s not my business what happens on other teams, but I’m glad San Jose did that.
Hrudey: It’s more of a wide open game. The young kids are out trying things more than ever. How did you come to grips with the fact that some of your kids in the shootout will be trying things that guys in our era never would, because they’d be considered hot dogs.
Oates: That’s a good [way of putting it]: hot dog. I think because of the shootouts, the kids have come up with these moves. You see Pavel Datsyuk’s moves in the shootout and all of the kids are trying that all the time. I’m sure that’s where it came from. As I said, it was his fourth goal of the game. It was the first time he did it, I had egg on my face for sure.
Oake: When you turn on the highlights in the morning, you’re quite likely to see someone stretchered or carried off. Hertl’s goal was on every highlight reel and if you add up all the times it’s been viewed on Youtube, it’s gotten two million hits. Would you concede in that respect it was good for the game?
Oates: Absolutely. Absolutely. As I said, in the shootouts, I’m an old school guy and it took me a long time to get adjusted to the shootouts. Some kids live for it now. As you said, it got a lot of attention. That’s always healthy. You know, you just want to see the player do the right thing as he grows.
Oake: We move on to you. You have one of the most magical days in the history of hockey, Tuesday, June 26th, 2012. How do you remember it?
Oates: It was a very special time around noon. It’s funny that, as I said in my [HOF] speech, George McPhee called me and told me I got the job with the Caps. Then I was in the process of calling all my buddies and family and I kept on getting this number calling in. I thought it was the media calling. And then George called me back and said, “You might want to take this call.” I recognized the number, I take the call, and it’s Jim Gregory from the Hall of Fame telling me that I got inducted. As you can imagine, it was pretty special. You know what? I was so floored with the job that I kinda forgot for a minute [about the HOF ballot], and then I realized then and I was like “oh my god.” It was just incredible, incredible 15 minutes of my life.
Oake: I mentioned before how brilliant your Hall of Fame speech was. I talked about that last year in Winnipeg. You hit all the right notes. What really struck me was the way you delivered the speech without a note in front of you. You didn’t look down once. You never lost your place. That’s very intimidating to an aspiring young broadcaster named Kelly Hrudey.
Oake: How did you do it?
Oates: Well I only practiced it about six million times. Quite honestly, I had a few thoughts in my head that I had obviously gone over. I tried practicing with notes and I was struggling. I just said, “You know what? You got some thoughts in your mind. If you can get through the opening couple minutes of nerves, maybe they’ll all flow.” And I got lucky. It did. I knew the guys that I was going to thank were out there [in the crowd]. And when I looked at them, it gave me the next idea and for some reason, I got lucky and the speech kind of flowed.
Oake: Are you going to run for office sometime?
Oates: If you only knew how nervous I was. Right before I went, they went to commercial after Pavel Bure [spoke]. My wife put her hand on my leg and said, “Oh my god, your leg is like five million degrees right now!” And shaking!
Hrudey: One of your good friends, Calle Johansson, is also one of your coaches. Tell us the story about how he used to get mad at you during [Caps] practices because of what reason?
Oates: You know what? I consider myself an upbeat guy believe it or not even though I’m intense. And in practice, I’m a laugher. He used to get mad at me because I’m fooling around out there and I’m like “No, I’m not. I can do the drill and laugh about it.” And he’s like, “Everybody else can’t. So stop it.” So we used to argue about that a lot.
Hrudey: How did your coaches react to that? Typically in NHL practices, there’s not a lot of laughter.
Oates: I’m smart enough to know when we lost and do what the coaches were looking for. When you play a long time, as you know, there’s a lot of practices and you have to find a way to get through them all the time.
Oake: How did you go undrafted?
Oates: You know what? I was just a late bloomer. College gave me a chance to grow as a player and as a man. It just gave me a couple more years to improve my hockey and it bought me time.
Hrudey: You were a great player in the NHL. You made other players better. Is it hard to be patient with other players who you coach who don’t have the skill set you had?
Oates: No. Not at all, Kelly. One thing that I’ve said all along: hockey was hard for me. It was not easy. When I came in the league, it was the fighting era and there were a lot of fights during that time and I was on the fourth line. It was difficult. I got benched. I got traded. I got hurt. I got sent to the minors. I got old. I feel like I’ve worn every hat and I know what everybody feels like. And you’ve got to respect the fact that this is the NHL. Guys are good here. I’m a positive guy. You have to work [on your game] all the time.
Oake: You were signed by Detroit and played for seven teams. For most guys it would mean that they can’t hold a job but in your case it would suggest you were always in great demand. Here’s a tweet from @POLOGANGSTER (capitalized for emphasis). Can you ask him who his favorite teammate was while playing? Brett Hull or Cam Neely? Or anybody else?
Oates: That’s not a fair question. It’s like asking which one of your brothers you love the most. I loved playing with all of them. Hully and I — as I said in my HOF speech — he put me on the map and we had incredible chemistry. I wish it could have been forever. We lived down the block from each other . We traveled together. We roomed together. And then you know, I got to go play with Cam. He scored 50 in 42. That was a magical season. And unfortunately with his injuries, he never got to play a long time. I was a very, very lucky man.
Oake: You played til the age of 42. You had a passing skill then that was unmatched then and hasn’t been matched since. Here’s a tweet from @AdamKirsch. Who’s the best passer you ever played with?
Oates: Uh. Good question. I’d say Ray Bourque. … I would say, yeah for sure. Ray Bourque. Ray was just a magical player. Played a long time. Handled the minutes. Handled the physicality. Handled playing against the best players. He ran our team.
Hrudey: What age did you know that you had that gift?
Oates: Um. Good question. Maybe in my teens? My father always stressed growing up as a center man, you have to make your wingers better. That’s your job. He taught me to learn my backhand which I’m so grateful for. If I didn’t learn my backhand, I would have never played in the league. It’s the one thing I tell every single kid, you gotta learn how to use your backhand.
Oake: Our final tweet. This is from @WhitPenner. Ask him if he ever gets the “Are you Ray Liotta line?”
[CBC puts up split screen of Oates and Liotta.]
[10 seconds of laughter.]
Oates: I’m older than him.