Adam Oates was an unemployed NHL coach in the spring of 2015 when he tuned in to watch the NBA Finals.
At one point, the broadcast turned to a discussion about LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers and his use of a private shooting coach, Idan Ravin, who had also worked with Kobe Bryant and others. Oates already knew that the Dallas Mavericks’ sharpshooting forward, Dirk Nowitzki, had been tutored by a coach, Holger Geschwindner.
“It got me thinking that there might be some guys that want a little extra attention or extra thoughts, depending on their schedule,” Oates said of NHL players. “So I reached out to a couple guys, and every single guy said, ‘Yeah, I’d love that.'”
Oates, a Hall of Fame center, knew from a 19-year playing career, a stint as a coach for the Washington Capitals from 2012 to 2014, and his time as an assistant for the New Jersey Devils that an NHL staff scarcely has time to devote to individual players. He also knew that in the past dozen years, players have been ramping up their commitment to nutrition, fitness and skill development.
“We’re trying every new pill, shake, workout — trying to improve, right?” he said about his pitch. “I’m like, ‘OK, why don’t you work on your craft?'”
Oates went into business a year ago as a freelance coach for hire, and he now works with about 50 players, several of whom are playing in the World Cup of Hockey this week. He is among a growing number of skills consultants working with professional and amateur athletes in search of even marginal improvement.
“He thinks the game like a guy that scored points in the league,” said Zach Parise, a wing on the Minnesota Wild and the American team at the World Cup. “He understands the pressures, the different things that a point-scorer is feeling. He talks about how to get the puck more in the offensive zone, and he has better ideas of what to do with the puck when you’ve got it.”
In addition to theory, Oates, who ranks seventh with 1,079 career assists, emphasizes rote on-ice work with NHL players, sometimes spending 40 minutes picking the puck up off the boards.
“That’s so remedial, but these guys understand that that’s important to them for their success,” Oates said. “You get good at that, you make 5 million bucks in our league.”
In addition to offering on-ice sessions, consultants like Oates use technology to share their expertise with clients across the continent, redefining the traditional relationship between coach and player.
Steve Wicklum is a former college hockey player and chief executive of My Pro Hero, a company started last year in Waterloo, Ontario, that matches players of all levels with the likes of Oates, the Hall of Famer Bryan Trottier and the Stanley Cup winner Theo Fleury.
Using conferencing software, the coaches can consult remotely, reviewing video of a player and marking it up with a telestrator, like the kind featured on sports broadcasts.
“Hockey is very old school, in a way,” Wicklum said. “The system is in place for years and years, and it’s finally changing.”
Winnipeg Jets center Mark Scheifele, a member of Team North America at the World Cup, said that during the 2015-16 season, Oates emailed short video clips of Scheifele’s gameplay with critiques, reinforcing lessons from their on-ice workouts in the summer.
“He’s helped me defensively, offensively, finding certain areas on the ice to go to, ways to create a little more space for yourself,” said Scheifele, 23, who scored a career-high 61 points last season, his third in the NHL
Ron Johnson, who has a master’s degree in biomechanics, is a former junior coach who has been working as a hockey consultant and researcher for three decades. His clients include Anaheim Ducks forward Ryan Kesler and San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski, both of whom are on the American World Cup team, which plays Canada on Tuesday night.
Although Oates works on a range of techniques, Johnson tends to focus on offense and scoring, which he said have been neglected in favor of structured team systems and defense.
“The offensive terminology is kind of a lost art,” he said. “It’s up to the individual player. Coaches such as me are now educating these players that there’s a terminology and there are tactics.”
Pavelski said that he appreciated regular communication from Johnson.
“I guess some of the big things early on was that he reassured me of some of the things I was doing that he really liked, and he hadn’t seen some players do as much,” Pavelski said. “He gave me some confidence to do those things a little bit better.”
Johnson said when he worked with Ducks players last season, coach Bruce Boudreau was “very accommodating, a great guy.”
Not every NHL coach has embraced the new breed of consultants.
Oates’ work with Parise was at the center of a controversy last season. Oates showed up to watch a Wild team skate, which rankled coach Mike Yeo.
“I would not do the same thing,” Yeo said after he was fired in February.
In March, the league’s general managers discussed concerns over the increasing influence of private coaches at their annual meetings.
“I think a lot of the skills coaches do a tremendous job,” said Todd McLellan, coach of the Edmonton Oilers and Team North America. “They’ve got great ideas, great technique, and they’re working on some of the things we can’t work on during the season because it’s just overwhelming, the lack of time that we have with travel games, and that type of stuff.”
But he cautioned that instructions from consultants could clash with what he expects from a player.
“We might be asking them to play a certain role on the power play, and if his personal coach is asking him to do something different, it’s not going to work,” McLellan said.
Last season, the Toronto Maple Leafs avoided potential conflicts by hiring Darryl Belfry, a pioneer among skill development coaches, to work with their prospects, including Auston Matthews, the No. 1 draft pick in June and a member of Team North America.
Belfry continues to tutor players from other teams, including John Tavares of the New York Islanders and Matt Duchene of the Colorado Avalanche, both of whom are on Team Canada. He built his reputation by working with youth hockey players in southern Ontario and Western New York, notably the American star Patrick Kane, who grew up in Buffalo, New York.
“I’ve been skating with him since I’ve been 9 years old,” said Kane, who led the NHL in scoring last season with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Kane said that he attends on-ice workouts with Belfry each summer and that every five games during the season, Belfry sends annotated video showing aspects of his game that can be improved.
“He’s very smart, very creative,” Kane said. “He thinks outside the box a little bit, which is good for offensive players. Every time I’ve worked with him, I seem to have a little bit more success.”
With endorsements from the likes of Kane, Oates said increased use of personal coaches, like gains in fitness and diet, was inevitable.
“It’s going to become more and more accepted,” he added.