Last Friday evening I was lucky enough to get a free hockey skills tutorial from Hall of Famer Adam Oates. Oates was in Edmonton watching one of his hockey pupils, Teddy Purcell. Two weeks ago I wrote about Purcell hiring Oates to be his skills coach, and I when I saw Oates sitting on the catwalk I wanted to find out more about his new business endeavour.
I introduced myself during the first intermission and explained I wanted to discuss his new career working with Purcell and other NHL stars like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. He happily agreed and thanked me for the article on Purcell – he had it saved on his phone – and we agreed to meet during the second intermission.
I always prefer interviewing and talking to people face-to-face. The conversation flows easier and you can read their reactions much easier. The moment I sat down to discuss skill development with Oates I knew I was going to learn a lot.
He is extremely passionate about the game. He loves hockey and having been an NHL player and head coach he knows both sides of the student/teacher relationship intimately.
My biggest concern with the state of hockey today is how much more coaching is done to prevent goals rather than score them. Goalies have a goalie coach on the ice with them almost every day. The majority of a coach’s video session focuses more on defending than attacking.
NHL teams do have skills coaches, but they are at the bottom of the pecking order. If players have extra time before or after practice they work with these coaches, but they aren’t on the ice daily, and unlike goalies, forwards and D-men do not receive 15-20 minutes of one-on-one time every few days to work on their skills.
If we want more scoring in the NHL, or at any level, we need to invest more time with skills coaches. This is why I was excited to speak with Oates.
Gregor: When did you decide to become a skills coach and how did you start?
Oates: In the playoffs last year a couple guys I coached before
reached out to me and asked what I was seeing, but because I was under New
Jersey’s umbrella I couldn’t really talk to them. In the summer, when I didn’t
get the Devils job, I started talking to those players and we talked about me helping them during the summer and during the season and they were all receptive to it.
Then, coincidentally, I was watching the NBA and Lebron
James was on and he was talking about how in between games he works with a
skills coach. The things all connected. I started a business and started
working with players.
Gregor: We hear players today are more skilled than ever, and I don’t
debate that, but there is much more coaching emphasis on defending than there
is scoring. How come?
Oates: When you are a coach
you spend your entire day watching video how do we prevent that shot, how do we
prevent that chance. You are correct it is an issue. There are a lot of skills
coaches in the world, but I see things others don’t. We all do.
I have found
that the communication I have with players I’ve coached over time, we get along
very well, they like what I bring them, they like the details I have and so far
it is going okay. I know coaches work more on preventing goals, I did as well,
but I’m hoping I can help players find ways to score more. Nothing that I teach
them interferes with the system their coach teaches. I make it clear to my guys
I don’t want to discuss systems. We focus on things that will help their game,
and ultimately that should help them flourish, regardless of the system.
Gregor: How does the evaluation process work with each player you
Oates: Every guy has a different personality. Some guys want it
every day, others want it once a week, but I watch all their games. Tomorrow in
the morning for instance, if I didn’t have a chance to watch their game I will
have the player’s shifts in the morning on my computer. It is a service
provided by the NHL.
I get to see every guy’s shift. They go to practice and then they call me in
the afternoon and we talk about what I saw. I send them clips, so they can see
what I see, and we talk over Skype. When they are on the road, which is a great
time to meet because they have some down time, so we can spend a little longer
talking about the things in the game, and remind them about the little details.
Gregor: Teddy Purcell told me you convinced him to cut six
inches off his stick. That is a major change. What did you pick up from
watching him that made you believe this was something he needed to do to
enhance his game?
Oates: Teddy has a great mind for the game and he has fantastic
hands, but when you watch a lot of games you see habits, and I noticed he
needed to be a hair quicker with his decisions. When he has time he’s as good
as anybody, but the game is fast-paced and it is getting faster and he’s
playing with Taylor Hall and Leon Draisaitl right now and they are a great
We talked about what would it take for him to be a hair
quicker and I showed him some video of where he gets stuck on the ice. Every
single player in the world gets stuck at certain points. I did, maybe Gretz is
the only guy who didn’t, but we all have our strengths and weaknesses and we
looked at areas we could improve. We came to the conclusion we needed to
shorten his stick, so he wouldn’t get stuck when the puck was closer to his
Gregor: Many of your former teammates have told me no one was finickier
with their stick than you. When you evaluate the players, do you talk with them
about the lie of their stick?
Absolutely. We play a sport that has a tool, like a golfer
and a baseball player we have a tool. Growing up with a wood stick I had the
ability to tinker with my stick every day. When I played with Brett Hull we
roomed together, we lived near each other and every single day we talked
sticks. He obviously got it from his father (Bobby Hull), and ever since then I
was a tinkerer. I fooled around with my sticks all the time.
The guys with the composite sticks don’t have that luxury,
because it is hard to play with the mold and tinker with their tool, but that
doesn’t mean they are using the right sticks. If you look at most half-wall
guys in the league, they are guys who have a really good forehand and backhand,
and you can’t do that if you don’t have a good tool. We start with that kind of
idea and then will filter through their game and when their stick helps them,
hurts them, why and how that creates habits in their game and the blind spots
in their game.
We play a contact game, a fast-paced game and we play in a
land of concussions, so I’m trying to prevent every single blind spot.
Gregor: In the off-season do
you do one-on-one sessions, or is it mainly video?
Oates: Part of the contract is in the summer time they can come to
me or I will come to them. Basically for two months it is unlimited time for
them, how much they want, and every player is different. We spend a lot of time
together, and from my perspective it is private. I won’t tell any other player
what I am doing with any particular player, but if they want to share it that
is their business.
If they want other guys on the ice I will work with them too, and sometimes having
another guy out there actually helps in terms of pace. The players like it so
far. They like the feedback and if they play a bit better it helps everyone. It
helps them, the coaches, the team and obviously it helps myself.
Gregor: Are you predominantly
working with forwards or do you work with some defencemen?
Oates: I have some defencemen. Being a coach in this league you
have to learn every position. I learned a lot about goaltending being a head
coach. Playing in the NHL I played with a lot of great defencemen, many Hall of
Famers and I’ve learned a lot about their position.
Every player still has angles, reads and we play so much
against the boards. How you play the puck around the dasher is vital in our
game. The more you have success with that the more you are going to be a better
player; at all ages.
Gregor: Will you expand your company and do seminars
with amateur coaches so they can go back and work with younger kids, and
obviously they can’t work on what NHL players do, but work on basic skill
development at younger levels?
Oates: Absolutely. I’ve actually talked to some people in Winnipeg
with their youth hockey programs in terms of doing some clinics. I have some
guys under my umbrella who I am teaching what I see so they can pass it on to
If you have a ten year old, his parents are going to the
store and buying sticks. I want them to buy the right one, because I want them
to improve. We live in a land of concussion and it is a big injury in our sport
and I want them to have the most success they can. Too many young player don’t
have the proper lie on their stick and then end up being too hunched over and
in a position to receive a head shot.
Gregor: Speaking of
concussions, what kind of skill development have you found kids can work on to
help them limit their blind spots?
Oates: I use the backhand. When you think of Wayne Gretzky, Mark
Messier here in Edmonton. Mario Lemieux I played against, Patrick Kane and
Sidney Crosby right now, they are all players who had fantastic backhands and
awareness on their backhands. The pace of their game is so fast, if you have a
good backhand, which I stress, then you are creating more vision, more
peripheral vision in your game and at all levels I stress that.
Gregor: Do you see yourself always being independent, or if an NHL
team approached you and asked you to be exclusive to their team would you?
Oates: That is tough because the contract I have with players are
all over the league so that would make it very difficult. But, in saying that
most teams have a skilled guy, so I don’t know why it couldn’t get to that
point, but right now I’m enjoying working with the guys and the one-on-one is
Gregor: If a player is not receptive to what you are showing them,
how do you get them to be receptive to try new things, because a lot of players
are creatures of habit?
Oates: That is a great question because nowadays we use a lot of
video, but my generation we never did. The video doesn’t lie. When I sit down
with these guys it is private, and I’m not a coach yelling at them. I’m more of
a parent where I’m saying, ‘You tell me what you are seeing here. Am I wrong or
am I right?’ The video doesn’t lie, sooner or later they have to admit the
issue. We have a short-term goal and a long-term goal, because it isn’t that
easy to change overnight, but if we can start working in that direction it will
help. I haven’t had any negative feedback thus far, because they video shows
them what I see.
Gregor: Are you looking to
work with draft eligible players, where you wouldn’t necessarily have the same
tape on them, but it is that a scenario that would involve more on-ice work
Yes, no question. Some kids in their draft year one of my
assistants works with five teams in Toronto. Players who are at that level where
a little improvement in the season could help their draft. Time is limited, and
as people reach out we are communicating with them and trying our best to
I watched the third period with Oates and he pointed out subtle small things in players from both teams. It was invaluable, and after speaking with Purcell about Oates it is clear the players enjoy his feedback.
Purcell has been much more effective since cutting his stick in early November. He looks quicker, and he is able to handle the puck better. He is also going to specific areas on the ice in the offensive zone to create more chances. He’s even been physically engaging at times.
Outside of working with players, Oates freelances as a powerplay specialist. An NHL team hired him to come and speak with their coaches for four days about their powerplay and some other offensive zone tactics.
The GM of the team said, “I’m happy my head coach told me he doesn’t know everything and is open and excited about meeting with you.”
Oates replied, “Your coach is lucky he has a GM who will listen when he discusses his weaknesses and not see it as a negative.”
Oates is a PP guru.
If I was Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan I’d consider talking to him. I know they have had injuries, but the Oilers have a lot of skill yet their PP is 18th in the NHL. We can always learn new things, and Oates’ specialty is the powerplay, so maybe he could present some different ideas.
The Calgary Flames should have him on speed dial. They are 30th in the NHL and an embarrassing 11.1% on the man advantage.
Outside of Purcell, Stamkos and Ovechkin Oates works with many other NHL players ranging in skill from first liners to fourth liners. Considering the success his current players are experiencing, you can expect his list of clients to grow this summer.
Oates is currently in talks with a former NHL All-star to join his company, Optimal Player Performance, in the New Year so they can handle the increased demand.
Minor hockey associations or individual players who are interested in having Oates come work with them to improve their skills can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Day 12: MONTH OF GIVING
Thanks you Ken and Cory for your bids yesterday and to Hughes Petroleum and the Oil Kings for the great packages.
- A signed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins Jersey.
- A Shadow Cabinet Box to hang the jersey in courtesy of Pro Am Sports. (See pic here)
- A collector bottle and stand of High Stick Vodka signed by Taylor Hall and Connor McDavid.
Thanks in advance. All proceeds will help out M.E. Lazerte breakfast program.
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