Adam Oates takes place in Hockey Hall Of Fame Monday

Bruce Bennett

On the eve of his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Capitals head coach reflects on his career and looks forward to his coaching debut.

Adam Oates had a deft touch with the puck during his playing days and was able to dish off the biscuit like few others the league has ever seen. In 1,337 games in the NHL, he collected 1,079 assists - sixth all-time in NHL history.

Monday, Oates will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame with three other inductees, joining the ranks of hockey's most legendary players with one of the etched panels that surround the Stanley Cup and the NHL's other trophies in the former bank lobby just off Yonge Street in downtown Toronto.

When asked by reporters Monday if he considered himself one of the game's greats, Oates didn't put himself on a pedestal.

"To be totally honest, not really," he said. "I never put myself in the category of Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, who I thought were special players. Am I honored? Absolutely, but someone else puts me in that category. I can't say I put myself there."

Oates spent 19 years in the National Hockey League - part of six seasons with the Capitals, the longest stop of his seven-team career - and when asked to recount what he remembers most during his career, he named two of his former teammates and two of his former clubs.

"For me hockey-wise, for the type of player I was, the thing that comes to mind is I got to play with two guys who scored 50 goals in 50 games," Oates said. "It's only been done a handful of times [in NHL history] and I played with two of them.

"Those memories of those years that Brett [Hull] and Cam [Neely] did it. When Brett did it in St. Louis [in 1991], he was taking the league by storm - like when Ovi came in here - and it was fantastic to be part of it. When Cam did it [in 1994 with Boston], he basically did it on one leg, and to watch him prepare for every game, let alone what he was doing, was an incredible feat.

"I had the best seat in the house for both of them. Between that and going to the Finals [in 1998 with Washington and 2003 with Anaheim], as a player, that was the best experience of my life."

Oates came to Washington at the trade deadline in 1997 from Boston with the Capitals looking to boost their offense, and spark some of the team's forwards, notably Peter Bondra and Oates' former Bruins teammate Joe Juneau.

He ended up becoming a mainstay with the franchise, eventually becoming the team's captain after Dale Hunter's departure in 1999. Although his first Capitals club narrowly missed the playoffs in 1996-97, his first full season in the nation's capital became a memorable one.

"The best thing that happened is we moved downtown, and [in my] first year with the Caps, we ended up going to the Finals," he recalled. "It was George [McPhee]'s first year, and Ron Wilson came in, and we had a very successful year and went to the Finals. We played great, [had] a new building, and then Ted [Leonsis] took over, a lot of positive things.'

Although Oates had spent time before his trade with some successful franchises - the Red Wings, Blues and Bruins - Washington's first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1998 was also Oates' first, and he remembered that particular club fondly.

"We played very well, we really did," he recalled. "Olie [Kolzig] blossomed for us and played really well, we had fantastic defense, played as a team, we upset some teams.

"We ran into Detroit [in the Finals], we could have made it a better series than we did, especially Game 2 we should have won. It was our first time there and it was good. [Defenseman] Mark Tinordi played well, and he got hurt the net year, and put a hole in our franchise after that.

"But it was a great experience ... as a player, not that you ever want to lose, but going to the Finals is still special."

Oates, who just turned 50 in August, is now back with the Capitals as the team's head coach, although his debut has been delayed by the lockout.

"It's very frustrating, but it's a work stoppage and happens in all walks of life," he said. "You got to take a mature attitude about it. Do I want to coach the guys, absolutely, it happened to me when I was a player, and it happens everywhere, and you just have to wait it out."

In the meantime, Oates is getting a chance to return to the AHL for the first time since he was a player for the Adirondack Red Wings in 1985-86, serving as the co-coach of the Hershey Bears with Mark French for the duration of the lockout.

"It's tough to put into words what have I learned [in Hershey]," Oates said. "I was on a bench [as an assistant] in this league and went to the Finals last year with Pete [DeBoer's Devils]. It was a great experience last year.

"Have I learned anything different? Not necessarily, anything other [than] changing lines, you hear your own voice more often than you did as an assistant coach."

He's also installing a bit of his more aggressive system in the minors, and trying to make it easier to play for the Bears.

"Schedule's very tough for those guys, at some point you sacrifice hockey," he said. "You have to take your hat off to them, they play a lot of hockey in a short span of time. In terms of system-wise, information you pass to them, we're trying to do the same thing every day - make it as easy for it is for them to play."

One thing Oates does miss is the NHL travel, and he has an admiration for those who make a career of long bus trips across North America.

"It's tough part of the job ... and you got to take your hat off to them. They still love hockey and still love the life and want the life."

For Oates though, although he will join the game's greats on Monday along with Joe Sakic, Pavel Bure and Mats Sundin, he still doesn't put too high a price on the Hall of Fame tag.

"I could care less about [the title of Hall of Famer], quite honestly," he said. "The people who matter to me in my life know me the way I act. I never did it for accolades. It was my job, and I got to play this game."

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