News & Politics

New Capitals Head Coach Adam Oates Talks Winning Ovechkin’s Trust—and the Stanley Cup

The new ice boss shares his thoughts on leading the team to a cup victory.

Adam Oates played 19 seasons in the NHL, six of them here in Washington. Tuesday he was named as the 16th head coach in the franchise’s
history, replacing his former Capitals teammate
Dale Hunter. During his playing days, Oates
was one of the NHL’s premier playmakers. He led the league in assists on
three occasions;
he finished in the top 20 in scoring ten times. In the 1990s,
only one player amassed more assists than Oates—his name was

Oates takes over a team that is dripping with talent
but that has failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs
five years running. He is charged with leading the Caps across
the finish line to the organization’s first Stanley Cup title.
It’s a heady mandate for a man who has never before been a head
coach in the NHL, and who has logged just three seasons as
an assistant. He takes over a dressing room that has been
factious at times, led by a gifted but complicated superstar in

Alex Ovechkin. The following is my conversation with Oates, which took place last night. It began by recalling the doubly magical events
that befell him this Tuesday.

Take me through what has to be one of the best days anyone could ever imagine: getting your first NHL head coaching job and
being named to the Hall of Fame all in the same day. How did it go down?

Obviously, it was an incredible day. In the past week I’d been talking to
George [McPhee] about potentially being the coach, and
George called me in the morning and told me I got the job. Obviously I
was pumped
up, and I was in the process of calling all my family and
friends to tell them, and I had this phone number that kept calling
me. I thought it was just a reporter trying to get a scoop on
the coaching job, so I was ignoring it, but then George called
on the other line and said, “I think you might want to pick up
that number.” And I answered it, and it was the Hall of Fame.
It was Jim Gregory, and I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding
me.” I had been so excited about the possibility of the Caps
job, I totally spaced about the Hall of Fame.

How close to winning the Cup is this Capitals team, in your opinion?

LA finished eighth in their conference and they won
the cup. I think there are at least ten teams right now that could win
the cup. I mean, some things have to go your way; you need a
bounce here and there, you need to stay healthy, you need the
team playing well at the right time, but I think the Caps are
one of the teams that are right there. Think about it—they were
one game away from going to the conference finals.

We’ve had a couple of very different coaching styles
with the last two coaches that were here. Bruce Boudreau played a
offensive style; Dale Hunter played much more of a
lock-down, East Coast defensive method. What can we expect from you?

I take an in-your-face approach. I think today, the
game is about territory. You have to be in someone’s face in all three
zones of the ice. You obviously need to protect your goalie and
your defense, because they’re the lifeblood of the team, but
you have to score goals. And teams are so well coached that you
can’t let an opportunity slip. You have to be able to do everything
in the game. Six teams in the playoffs played that East Coast
style, so you have to be able to do that. If you play a team
that’s a little more open, you have to be able to match them as
well. You have to be able to play every which way. That’s
not just one zone any more. You have to able to play all over
the ice.

Let’s talk Alex Ovechkin. He scored 38 goals last year,
which is still fifth best in the league, but people are pointing to
what he didn’t do because he set such a high standard early
in his career. Why do you think there’s been a dip in his production?

It’s tough from the outside looking in. I haven’t been
there every day, so I haven’t been able to read all the nuances and
all the little things, but I know the player I see is a guy who
is an incredible force on the ice. I think I can add to his
game. I think I can maybe enhance his game a little bit and
maybe clean up some of the flaws, if you will. But it’s so tough
to score in this league, and you’re talking about the guy
that—every team he plays against, the whole focus of their pregame
meeting is about this guy. So he wears that burden on his
shoulders every single night. But can he play better? Sure. Everybody
can play better.

Ovi has had a complicated relationship with his past
two coaches. Things didn’t go well between Boudreau and him at the end
of Bruce’s tenure, and then with Dale [Hunter], he reduced
his minutes and there were some questions there. Knowing how vital
the relationship is between a coach and his superstar, how
eager are you to get off on the right foot with him?

I think in today’s game, communication is vital. And I
consider myself a communicator. I think we’re going to get off on the
right foot because I think I can explain to him the game I
want, and I think I’m going to be the kind of coach he and the
rest of the guys on this team like. But to answer your
question—yeah, I think it is vital. You want him to believe in you,
but you have to earn his respect. He’s the star of this
franchise, and he’s going to be leery of me; he’s going to want to
see what I bring. He’s going to have to play for me, and I’m
going to have to do my job for him, and I think that’s very fair.

From what you saw of Braden Holtby in the playoffs, are you convinced he’s the goalie of the future for this franchise?

I think there are two great young goalies here [Holtby and
Michal Neuvirth]. Braden came up and played
very well for the team and gave the guys some confidence, and they
played well, as did the whole
team. I think it’s a little early to say that. I think he
played great hockey for the team, but I think both young goalies
are very good here.

You played here in ’98 when the Caps went to the Stanley Cup Finals, and the building was filthy with Detroit fans. Can you
believe how much Washington has evolved as a hockey town between then and now?

I think you have to look to ownership there. Obviously that’s been one of
Ted [Leonsis’s] strengths in his lifetime. And
there’s the amount of attention he’s gotten for the franchise, and
drafting a guy like Alex,
and building this practice facility in Arlington, which is
state of the art. And then the fans down at the Verizon Center—going
in there as a visiting team, it’s electric every single night.
To see the evolution is great for the franchise and great for
the city.

This team has won the President’s Trophy [for most regular season wins], and it’s been to the second round of the playoffs
a couple of times. What are your goals? Is it pretty much Stanley Cup or bust at this point?

Well, that’s what Ted said at the press conference.
And you can understand that. They were one game away from going to the
conference final last year. The team played very good hockey
and played great the last month of the season, and there’s no
reason to not let that continue. I think you have to have a
couple of mini goals first, and that is to get off to a good start
and to get everybody playing solid, but the ultimate goal is
definitely the cup. For sure.

You made it to the Stanley Cup Finals twice, but in 19 seasons, you never won it. How much does that eat at you, and how much
of that can you impart to this team in terms of the need to seize opportunities?

You get so close, you can just taste it. And I’m sure
during the course of the season, when you have meetings and you tell
stories, that’s one of the messages I’ll try to let the guys
know that’s it’s not that easy, and you’ve got to stay focused.
I think they got a taste of it themselves. I mean, to get to
game seven against the Rangers—they were right there, and I think
a lot of the guys will draw upon that as part of their learning
curve. Was it disappointing for me? Yeah. You’ve been in the
game a long time, and you want to get your name on it.