Adam Oates, Brett Hull and how money ripped apart a Hall of Fame duo

Bruce Bennett

Adam Oates' induction into the Hall of Fame is a fitting tribute to a career highlighted by a mesmerizing on-ice partnership with Brett Hull. But fans shouldn't forget why that partnership came to a premature end.

With 1,420 points in 1,337 NHL regular season games, Adam Oates deserves a thousand accolades as he's inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame Monday night.

But history shouldn't give him a pass for his part in dissolving one of the best offensive partnerships the sport has ever seen.

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Jan. 17, 1992:

Oates has threatened to walk out after the All-Star break this weekend if the Blues don't give him a raise or trade him. Oates' signature is on a contract worth $3.2 million over four years. Oates has dropped his demand for guaranteed money and wants to earn his raise through restructured bonuses.

The Blues are unwilling to yield.

''We've made a long-term commitment, a total commitment to him, and we're going to live up to it 100 percent,'' [Blues executive Jack] Quinn said. ''We expect them to live up to it, too.''

The saga wouldn't end until Oates was traded to the Boston Bruins in February, but it began well before that. It was sometime around December 1991 -- more than 200 points into his lethal three-year pairing with Brett Hull -- that Oates first demanded an in-season renegotiation of his contract or else.

Or else he'd walk out on the St. Louis Blues. Or else he'd demand a trade away from the club that, by his own admission, helped make him a star and enabled new endorsement deals.

The real kicker -- one of relevance to today's fans caught in the NHL lockout? Oates had signed a new contract extension just six months earlier.

But the market changed, and Oates decided that he deserved a renegotiation. Mid-season.

Oates went public -- initially through his agent -- with his demands and the situation lingered for months. He said he'd made a mistake by signing before the market changed (it always changes), and players like John Cullen in Hartford and future Hall of Famer Ron Francis in Pittsburgh signed even pricier multi-year deals after lengthy holdouts.

Their salaries of around $1 million were similar to Oates' new salary, but those big salaries kicked in sooner (Oates was still on an earlier contract when he signed his extension).

''Circumstances have changed since then,'' he said. ''I'm 29, and I'm running out of time. There's money for the other guys. I deserve it. I earned it.''

[...]

''I should be paid what I deserve to be paid,'' he said.

The Blues do not want to renegotiate, pointing out that Oates has had two extensions - after they acquired him and in the summer.

''We just did that six months ago,'' said Blues president Jack Quinn.

Six Months Earlier: A Different Tune

But what had Oates said upon signing that extension six months prior? Something different enough to make you wonder how money can change a man. The Post-Dispatch reported it this way on July 7, 1991:

His old contract would have paid him less than $800,000 over the next three years, but Blues President Jack Quinn and general manager Ron Caron acknowledged that it was outdated.

''I was really pumped about it,'' said Oates, 28. ''It's great to get recognized that way. I was in a unique situation with the contract length. Mr. Quinn and Mr. Caron were great to me. They didn't have to do it.''

And on Friday, Oates got his first major local endorsement deal - with the Pepsi Bottling Co. of St. Louis.

This is all contract history minutia, just the details of yet another player vs. owner dispute. Except in this instance, the fallout broke up -- and aborted -- a significant part of hockey history in the making.

History Made. History Broken. History Repeats.

Their partnership had seen Brett Hull score more than 220 goals in three seasons. After Oates helped Hull join the select club of NHLers who'd scored 50 goals in 50 games, he did the same for Cam Neely in Boston. It boggles the mind to think how much more Oates and Hull could have produced together. This was another iteration of Mike Bossy and Bryan Trottier, of Jari Kurri and Wayne Gretzky -- the kind of one-two combo that reminds fans on a nightly basis that they are watching history.

Ever since Oates' selection to the Hall of Fame was announced earlier this year, article after article has marveled at that brief, illustrious period in NHL history. It lasted for less than three seasons, but it helped define the resume that puts Oates into the Hall today. It was a period where Hull practically could not miss, where Oates could find him anywhere on the ice. They had an extra sense for where each other would be.

Yet without fail, modern articles lament that the period was too brief -- Hull even ripping the club for "poor decisions," just as he ripped both the club and its fans during the height of Oates' ultimatum -- but none point out it was Oates himself who initiated that period's premature end.

That's a part of history worth remembering. particularly when this year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be tainted by the on-going NHL lockout and the never-ending tug-of-war between players and owners.

A Lesson for Today's CBA War

One of the overlooked blessings of the NHL CBA which just expired in September was that it finally put an end to in-season player holdouts and runaway contract bonuses. (As noted in the first excerpt above, Oates altered his initial demand of a salary raise to a demand for new contract bonuses.)

Players used to gain leverage and hold their teams (and fans) hostage through such holdouts. Holdouts are how Hall of Famer Paul Coffey and Andy Moog forced trades out of Edmonton, Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine forced a trade from the New York Islanders, and countless players secured larger raises in the era before liberalized unrestricted free agency.

As the current CBA dispute costs the NHL games for the fourth time in the past two decades, it's worth remembering all of the damage the unending quest for the upper hand by owners and players has done to the game and its fragile relationship with fans.

During the nadir of Oates' threat to walk out on the Blues, his close buddy Hull ripped Blues fans. (As a player, Hull was notorious for winning the favor of quote-seeking media by always saying what's on his mind. He was equally notorious among fans for not always having something on his mind worth saying.) "They don't have a clue about hockey," he reportedly said about fans who booed Oates after the ultimatum became public.

If only he'd had a clue about the fans who help pay his, Oates' and every other player's salary. It may have been the damage to the fan-player relationship that finally put an end to the two-month-long mid-season ordeal. Here is how Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz described the final straw on Feb. 9, 1992:

The end came Thursday night, when Adam Oates refused to skate onto the ice to acknowledge the fans after being named the No. 2 star in the Blues victory over New Jersey. This would be the final act of treason. Oates was finished in this town. The self-centered center was history.

And Mike Shanahan saw to it. According to sources close to Shanahan, the Blues chairman could no longer contain his rage. He had been patient throughout the ordeal, but now Shanahan's Irish blood was boiling after Oates snubbed the crowd. Minutes after the game, Shanahan gave Blues general manager Ron Caron an order:

Trade Oates.

Now.

Less than 12 hours later, Oates was sent to Boston for center Craig Janney and defenseman Stephane Quintal. Shanahan simply would not allow the Blues to be held hostage by an ungrateful malcontent and his unethical agent. Instead of receiving ransom, Oates got the next flight out of town.

That version clearly carries the columnist's judgment of the moment, and Oates would say at the time there were other sides to the story.

But the underlying lesson is as haunting for fans caught in today's CBA war as it was 20 years ago. (Many forget that the NHLPA went on strike just two months after Oates' trade to Boston, another salvo in an escalating labor war.)

The endless fight between players and owners over fans' money has intensified over the last 20 years, the game rarely better for it. This fight ends careers. It ruins seasons. It taints Hall of Fame ceremonies.

And it even reminds us that Hall of Fame players are a huge reason it carries on to this day.

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