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Adam Oates' Hiring 15 Years In The Making

Long before George McPhee offered the Capitals' head job to Adam Oates, the center had made his mark with his on-ice analysis.


While the formal portion of the Capitals' interviewing for their next head coach lasted a little over a month, Adam Oates' informal interview with Washington's top brass had been ongoing since 1997.

It's evident that Oates made a very lasting impression on both Capitals owner Ted Leonsis and general manager George McPhee back in his playing days in Washington over a decade ago. A strong scent of nostalgia was in the air at Wednesday's press conference at Verizon Center, as both talked extensively about Oates' impact as a team leader and captain back when he skated for the Capitals from 1997 to 2002.

Coming off another bench boss with deep roots to the club in Dale Hunter, Washington gets another player with strong ties to the team, this one the later edition of the Capitals around the turn of the century that went to the Stanley Cup Finals, but one that also was heading towards a rebuilding project that created the team's current roster.

Both Leonsis and McPhee singled out one bit of advice Oates gave during his playing career, when the captain suggested to McPhee and then-coach Ron Wilson early in the 2000-01 season that Washington should move sniper Peter Bondra back to the point on the power play.

"I remember him coming up ... to Ron and I, about six games into the season," McPhee recalled. "I think we were in the lobby of the hotel on the road, and he said 'Have you ever thought about putting Peter Bondra on the point on the power play?'

"'We said, 'I'm not sure," and 'How's he going to get up the ice and so on.' He said, 'It doesn't matter. We need the shot back there. I can get him the puck.' Peter Bondra had the most power-play goals in the league that year.

"It was a good suggestion."

Bondra's power-play total more than quadrupled from just five goals the year before Oates' advice up to 22 to lead the NHL in that category, scoring nearly half of his goals that campaign with the man-advantage.

With Washington's power-play struggling the last two seasons after leading the league in 2009-10, the Caps are looking for some similar successful tips to restore their current special teams unit.

One thing that McPhee also noted of his new coach was his "hockey IQ," again reaching back to his playing days with Washington.

"His background in the game is exceptional," he said. "He's really a terrific player and quickly become a top-notch assistant coach and now he's ready to be a head coach. In terms of his hockey IQ, I don't know if there's a player that I've met that's better in terms of understanding the game and vision on the ice and ability to articulate what goes on the ice, it's really impressive."

Oates, who was named Washington's captain during Ted Leonsis' first season as Capitals owner in 1999, also made an impression on his new boss quickly.

"Adam was always like a coach on the ice," Leonsis said. "I would say as a player, he was one of the few players who was - as a new owner - would talk to me about hockey. He explained to me what was going on. As a new owner, I was very, very appreciative of that."

For his part, Oates also said he was thrilled to be coming back to the Capitals, noting the longest stop of his 19-season NHL career was in the nation's capital. But he didn't seem overly convinced he would return to the club again after being traded away in a trade-deadline deal to Philadelphia in 2002.

"It's an honor to be here today, a day I thought would never happen - where I'm member of the Washington Capitals again. I played my longest time in this league for this organization, and to come back here as a head coach in the National Hockey League is a huge high for me and my family."

But clearly, his suggestions and tips over a decade ago were noted by both McPhee and Leonsis, and after Oates took a five-year break from the game in California with his family upon his retirement in 2004, he's been on the Capitals' radar since taking an assistant coaching job with Tampa in 2009.

"I reminded him I was office one day at Kettler [during the 2009-10 season] - the Caps were on a road trip - and one of those scheduling commitments where Tampa was here," Leonsis recalled. "Our receptionist said, 'I saw Adam Oates come into the building.'

"I hadn't seen Adam since he left the team. I ran over to get him, since I had such positive feelings about him, and starting talking to him. We go down and see George, and started chatting, and then he had to get to work. I was saying to George 'He's really smart guy, isn't he?' George said 'Yeah, he's the smartest player I've been around.'"

One thing that has changed from Oates' first tour of duty in Washington is the expectations and attention placed on this club. While Oates was part of Washington's only Stanley Cup Finals club in 1998, that was considered less of an expectation and more of a surprise run. This time around, there is an expectation to duplicate the feat.

"I think not only will Adam be a very, very good coach for us, he also shares having a chip on his shoulder," Leonsis said. "We're at that point where we have to do better in the playoffs. We have to win the Stanley Cup. That's what our mission is. Adam's now been to the Finals twice, once as a player, once as a coach. We want to win a Cup together. That's our collective goal."

Of course, one thing Oates laughingly noted is the attention level of the club is a bit different than his playing days, too.

"I remember when I was named captain one year, we did the announcement over by the White House. I think there was no one there, people walking by, we were trying to pull people over."

Anonymity is one thing Oates won't have around Washington any more as he has been tasked to do what he couldn't quite do during his first tour of duty in Washington. Delivering the Caps a Stanley Cup.