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Helene Elliott ON THE NHL

Set-Up Man Gets the Last Laugh

May 17, 2003|Helene Elliott

Life doesn't always offer second or third chances, and when it does, those chances sometimes come in strange guises.

When Adam Oates was offered a contract by the Mighty Ducks last summer, shortly before his 40th birthday, it appeared to be a chance for him to prolong his career and enhance his statistics, not to win a ticket to the Stanley Cup finals. But his father, David, a soccer fanatic who had taught him as a boy that it's better to give passes than to receive them, immediately saw some possibilities.

"I was pretty delighted," David Oates said. "I had met [Duck General Manager] Bryan Murray way back, when Adam was in Washington, so we knew him. And Paul Kariya obviously was a great name, so it seemed like a natural fit."

Even though Oates and Kariya didn't play together much until the second half of the season, Oates has proved to be an impeccable fit with the Ducks, never more so than the night he helped boost them to the Western Conference championship and their first appearance in the Stanley Cup finals.

Oates, one of the NHL's greatest playmaking centers and Murray's first major signing last summer, scored two power-play goals Friday to propel the Ducks one more step forward on their remarkable journey. The Ducks' 2-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild completed their stunning sweep of the West finals and launched them into the Stanley Cup finals next week against the winner of the East finals series between Ottawa and New Jersey.

"It's obviously very special," Oates said. "It's been a while and it was so unexpected that this team would get here.

"We started believing in ourselves and played awesome hockey to get here."

The most awesome of all, certainly, was goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who stopped 122 of 123 shots by a feisty but tired Minnesota team that pulled out all the tricks in its repertoire. But as Giguere himself was quick to say, he could not have done this and would not have wanted to do this by himself, by having to scramble and flail and embody that wonderful hockey cliche of standing on his head to repel the puck.

There was a stalwart defense that blocked shot after shot. A corps of forwards whose character is above reproach: Mike Leclerc essentially playing on one sound leg, Kariya suppressing his sorrow and playing with passion and energy despite his father's death Dec. 28, Oates recovering from a broken hand to lend his experience and leadership and faceoff skills despite uncertainty over whether he'll be back next season.

Because he didn't meet a certain point total this season, Oates didn't activate a clause in his contract that would have automatically extended his contract through next season. Yet, he has not complained or attempted to negotiate through the media. He has played with the enthusiasm of a man half his age, tailoring his game to add grit and encouragement as needed.

"He's a big part of our team and success," Duck Coach Mike Babcock said. "One of the reasons we were the best faceoff team in the National League was because of Oates.

"Guys that have been around, been through the wars, make a big difference in your room and bring a certain amount of pride to specialty teams and the things they believe in."

And so the man who has made his living and a Hall of Fame career by setting up teammates' goals scored the two biggest goals in Mighty Duck history.

On the first, at 8:30 of the first period, he pounced on a puck that had caromed off the foot of Minnesota defenseman Brad Bombardir. On what held up as the title-winning goal, Oates was on the doorstep to pot another puck that was bouncing crazily in the forest of legs and sticks in the crease in front of Manny Fernandez.

Not the kind of tic-tac-toe passing combinations Oates used to pull off in St. Louis with Brett Hull or in Boston with Cam Neely, but the goals didn't count for any less. In fact, they counted for more, much more than Oates could ever have hoped when he signed on the dotted line last summer.

He has been to the Stanley Cup finals once, with Washington in 1998. The Capitals were swept by the Detroit Red Wings, and Oates could never be sure he would get another chance to see his name engraved on the silver chalice.

"I hope we'll play a lot better than [the Capitals] did in that final," Oates said.

He's five years older now, but he has fought the ravages of time with a rigorous fitness program and strict diet. It has kept him going, and if he didn't always know what toward, he knows now.

"When you get to a certain age, every year you kind of wonder," he said. "You always feel like you can play more but you don't get that chance every year. You're always wondering."

He had won a college title at RPI and had counted that the highlight of his career. The second didn't come until much later.

"The second-best was going to the finals with Washington, and I told the guys that," he said. "We've got a chance to do that again, and improve on it."

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