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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Oates Keeps Answering Age-Old Question

May 12, 2003|Helene Elliott

MINNEAPOLIS — The doubts creep into Adam Oates' mind on the rare occasions he loses more faceoffs than he wins or fails to thread a pass to one of his wingers.

Will they think I'm getting too old to play this game? Do they think they see signs my legs are going or my hands aren't quick anymore?

The questions haunted him after he broke his left hand in October and sat out 15 games, which led to the end of a streak in which he had collected 40 or more assists in 15 consecutive seasons. Although he ranks 15th on the NHL's career points list with 1,402, and sixth in assists with 1,063 and his assist-per-game average of .832 is third behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, Oates' confidence faltered.

"I think I'm beyond a veteran age," said the Mighty Duck center, who will be 41 in August and is eight months older than Coach Mike Babcock. "I think you become a veteran and then you get to an age when they're watching you, and maybe they're not, but that's all you talk about in every interview. 'Hey, you're still playing at 40.' Babs talked to me a few times this year and said he's not looking at that, but it's me.

"I actually talked to Ray Bourque about it. He said, 'You'll probably see it in a couple of years.' I would laugh. But when you have a bad game at 20, you're 20. You have a bad game at 30, they say, 'Well, he just had a bad night.' You have a bad game at 40, they go, 'Ohh.'

"My answer is I had bad games at 20. But unfortunately, it's something you've got to deal with. Sometimes I'm tired. Not all the time, but sometimes. The five-overtime game against Dallas, between every overtime I was saying to myself, 'Don't cramp up or they'll say the old guy's dead, even though we're all tired.' "

His gritty performances throughout the Ducks' run to the Western Conference finals -- and his chip pass to spring Mike Leclerc for a two-on-one with Petr Sykora on the double-overtime winner in the opener -- make such dark thoughts absurd. Oates, signed as a free agent last summer, has been a key figure in the team's success not only with his two goals and six points but by winning 56.3% of his faceoffs and battling for loose pucks with a passion that is ageless.

"His body fat is probably lower now than at any point in his career and he might be skating as well as any time in his career," Duck General Manager Bryan Murray said Sunday. "I see a guy who has a great head for the game, great vision on the ice. Things happen for him that don't happen for a lot of players in this game."

The calendar is the one foe no athlete can conquer. Even Gordie Howe had to retire eventually.

But for now, Oates is winning. He's playing capable defense, using his wiles to lift an opponent's stick or maneuver his body to protect the puck, and he's creating scoring opportunities for Sykora and Leclerc. Babcock called him "stick tough," meaning he won't thump anyone but neither will he let an opponent go by without a fierce tussle for possession and position.

That was especially evident in the Ducks' second-round elimination of the top-seeded Dallas Stars, a series that valued grit over finesse.

"We really stressed defense and we matched up against a team that had the puck behind our net a lot, so there were a lot of confrontations," said Oates, who set up Sykora's quintuple-overtime winner in Game 1 and Leclerc's overtime winner in Game 2 against the Stars. "I like scoring, but I like playing defense too."

That willingness to play an all-around game stems from his childhood. His parents were born in England, and his father, David, idolized English soccer standout Stanley Matthews, famed for his selflessness in setting up teammates rather than scoring. Oates took that philosophy to heart; setting up many of the 86 goals Brett Hull scored for the Blues in 1990-91 and many of the 50 goals Cam Neely scored for the Bruins in 1993-94.

"Our family legacy," Oates said. "You always get along on a team when you dish the puck. Guys like you, and when you're a kid, that's important, right?"

They like him now too. "If you watch the way he's played, he's gone in the corner and done the dirty work," said Paul Kariya, who recommended Oates to Murray last summer. "Adam's been fantastic. Everybody enjoys having him around for his expertise, especially in offensive situations and on the power play."

Oates signed a two-year deal but the second year was contingent on the Ducks making the playoffs and Oates reaching a certain point total. The Ducks did their part but Oates, idled by the broken hand and not at his best for a while after, fell short of the total that would have triggered an automatic extension. Murray said he and Oates talked before the playoffs and will talk again when the season ends.

Which might not be for a while. Thanks in part to Oates, who hopes to be as much a part of the Ducks' future as he is of their present.

"The potential is huge. We've got a tremendous amount of young guys and obviously we've got great goaltending," he said, referring to Jean-Sebastien Giguere. "We've got a solid coaching staff and solid management, which I think hasn't necessarily been here, and hopefully ownership will keep them, which is where it all starts. You've got a tremendous amount of potential, but at the same time, you've got to be careful because Carolina made the finals last year and they didn't make the playoffs this year. That's how fine a line it is for a lot of teams."

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