When Adam Oates is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, there is no doubt that the word playmaker will repeatedly be used to describe him.
After Wayne Gretzky, Oates is arguably the best passer to ever lace them up in the NHL, ranking sixth in career assists with 1,079. He helped set up the Hall of Fame careers of Brett Hull and Cam Neely and made so many average scorers look like Hull and Neely.
But what Oates did during his 368 regular-season and 42 playoff games with the Boston Bruins (1991-92 through 1996-97) was show just how complete a player he really was.
"Everybody talks about his playmaking skills, but he was much more than that," said Vancouver Canucks associate coach Rick Bowness, who coached Oates for 26 regular-season games and 15 playoff games in the Bruins' improbable run to the Wales Conference finals in 1992. "It was obvious how good he was with the puck, but he was very good without it too. He understood and applied all facets of the game, and he came to play every game and every practice."
While Neely and Oates would form instant chemistry, they didn't actually play together until the 1992-93 season and weren't on the ice together nearly as often as the Bruins or their fans would have liked. When Oates arrived in Boston via a trade with St. Louis in 1991-92 (for Craig Janney and Stephane Quintal), Neely was suffering from myositis ossificans, a debilitating injury that developed from the infamous hit he took from Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson in the 1991 Wales Conference finals. Neely played only nine games in the 1991-92 season and never got in a game with Oates.
Instead of letting Neely's absence affect his play, Oates decided he would be the one to light the lamp and help carry the team to its second straight conference finals. After scoring 10 goals to go with 20 assists in 26 regular-season games, Oates added five goals and 14 assists in the playoffs.
"We had a great year, and we didn't have Cam Neely," Bowness said. "That says it all right there when you ask about [Oates'] value to the team, and he did that all without the guy he was brought in to play with."
Oates scored what Bowness termed one of the most "intelligent" goals he had ever seen when he netted the overtime winner off a faceoff in Game 2 of the Adams Division semifinals against the Buffalo Sabres.
"It was down there just to the right of our bench, and before you knew it, the game was over," Bowness said. "We went on to win the series, but that was obviously a huge goal for us and I remember it like it happened yesterday. He surprised everyone in the whole rink.
"Very few guys take that puck and push toward the net, but Adam saw something and he did that. He was probably one of the only guys who could."
What Oates would do the following two seasons erased any doubt that he was a one-dimensional player. Neely was again limited in 1992-93, playing in just 13 games. So Oates became the team sniper, lighting the lamp 45 times while recording 97 assists to finish third in the NHL with 142 points.
"He had to adapt to someone who was always thinking pass first to someone who if he was in position to shoot, he had to shoot," Neely said. "He made players around him better and wanted to be the guy that was making an important contribution to the team, and he did carrying them. He adjusted so well, and that's what made him such a valuable player wherever he played."
In 1993-94, Oates and Neely finally got together on the ice for an extended amount of time. While still hampered by injury, Neely returned to the lineup and scored an amazing 50 goals in 49 games. Oates, who played in 77 games, finished the season with 32 goals and 80 assists. Oates, Neely and Joe Juneau (72 points in 63 games) became one of the most lethal scoring lines in the NHL.
"You'd get back to the bench and think of how things were playing out and be like, 'Wow! Did that just happen?'" Neely said. "The success we had was so much fun for all of us and one of those magical times where everything seemed to -- I wasn't practicing as much as I'd have liked or playing as much as I wanted to -- but we just had some magic that just certainly happened."
The magic Oates performed on the ice has him joining Neely once again, this time in the Hall of Fame.
"I figured someday this would happen," Neely said of Oates' selection to the Hall. "He is obviously one of the best players I played with and probably one of the best playmakers of his time. For him to do what he did with me and Brett [Hull], two different types of players, and to learn our tendencies and where we were going to be shows his feel for the game. I am extremely happy for him."