Oates reached out to Ovechkin after getting the job as coach of the Washington Capitals in June 2012, establishing a connection with the star captain that didn’t exist under Dale Hunter. He capitalized on that by convincing Ovechkin to move to right wing last season, a switch that paved the way to Ovechkin winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.
But Oates wasn’t done cultivating a strong working relationship with his captain. Last summer, he flew to Russia to spend some time away from the rink and in Ovechkin’s environment as a thank you for believing in the position change.
“I went there because he did something for the organization, for me and the staff, that he didn’t have to do, in my opinion,” Oates said Wednesday. “He won the Hart and there was no banquet last year, and I wanted to show him how much it meant to me, personally, and for the club, to go over on his turf to acknowledge it.”
Ovechkin owes Oates for helping him reinvigorate his career after becoming somewhat stale and predictable. His goal production was still better than much of the league — 32 in 2010-11 and 38 in 2011-12 — but he wasn’t the game-changing superstar who broke into the league and piled up the awards.
Now 28, Ovechkin has 17 goals going into Friday night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. That’s tied for top spot with St. Louis Blues forward Alex Steen, who was set to face the Boston Bruins on Thursday night.
Ovechkin wouldn’t be in the midst of this career renaissance without Oates’ pointers, which continue even as the goal light comes on far more often than it did two years ago.
“I’m not going to violate the trust, and I don’t think he will,” Oates said. “That doesn’t mean that on a day-to-day basis I can’t correct him on a game, like talk about things, little things and improve his game. I guess that’s where the trust comes in that he trusts that I’ve got his best interests at heart. But I think he should be over that by now.”
Ovechkin seems to be over it and comfortable with his coach and role as a high-scoring right-winger. He appreciates that Oates cares about players’ lives beyond hockey.
“He wants to know the guys,” Ovechkin said in September. “He don’t want to do only training and be at the ice rink and show us video. He want to know everything about us, about me personally. He met my family, as well, last year. It’s good. We can talk, not about hockey but different stuff of life.”
According to The Washington Post, Oates did some film study with Ovechkin in Moscow over the summer and went out to a restaurant with him and his friends to watch the Russian national soccer team play Northern Ireland. Russia lost, but Ovechkin picked up the bill and the bond between player and coach grew stronger.
That’s even with Ovechkin knowing full well that it didn’t take flying halfway around the world to be on good terms.
“It doesn’t matter if he fly or not, we still have a good relationship,” Ovechkin said. “It was nice of him to come see me, what I’m doing out there, see my hometown. He spent one time on the ice with me. It’s always good to have that kind of relationship with a coach. I never had it before. It’s always exciting, it’s always fun.”
Oates agreed that it wasn’t essential he go to Russia. It wasn’t like this was a relationship that needed saving.
“I don’t think we needed to get closer,” he said. “I really like the guy. We get along great.”
That’s not to say there wasn’t some tough love along the way. When Ovechkin second-guessed the switch to right wing early in the 2013 season, Oates moved him back to the left side but played him with grinders Jay Beagle and Joey Crabb.
Four games later, Ovechkin was back to buying what Oates was selling about being a right-winger and has been there since. He has 40 goals in his past 43 games dating to March and is a legitimate threat to score 50 in a full season.
Some of that is thanks to Ovechkin maturing as a player and a person in his late 20s, but he knows his coach has pushed all the right buttons. Even when Oates joked that the Capitals’ successful third line of Jason Chimera, Mikhail Grabovski and Joel Ward were actually the top line, Ovechkin smiled and acknowledged he knows a thing or two about hockey.
“You can see when Oatesy makes a decision it’s working all the time,” Ovechkin said.