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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Weir-Oates friendship comes in handy

Canadian Press
Wednesday, June 4, 2003

East Rutherford, N.J. — Veteran centre Adam Oates of the Mighty Ducks is in uncharted territory, two wins away from his first career Stanley Cup.

On the eve of a pivotal Game 5 against the New Jersey Devils, Oates is comforted by a conversation he had with his close friend Mike Weir.

"He was telling me how he felt after the Saturday night at the Masters," said the 40-year-old Oates. "He said the same thing we had been saying. He went home, did his regular routine, didn't try to think too much about it, because tomorrow is the most important day — just go play.

"And that's kind of where we are now."

This year's final more than likely hinges on Thursday night's game, the Ducks flying high after winning two straight at home and the Devils a little stunned after blowing a 2-0 series lead. The tension could be felt in both dressing rooms after practice at the Continental Airlines Arena on Wednesday.

"We're trying to approach it like any other game," Oates said. "Tomorrow is the most important game. But we're trying not to put any extra thought into it because you'll just stress yourself out."

And after 1,436 regular season and playoff outings, Oates faces a game that he ranks the most important in his brilliant career.

"It's No. 1, I've never been this far before," Oates said.

For Oates, the Cup is finally within his reach after a long an unusual road. Undrafted by the NHL and pumping gas as a teenager before a scout lured him to play Tier II hockey in the Toronto area some 20 years ago, the native of Weston, Ont., played NCAA hockey at RPI before finally signing a pro contract with the Detroit Red Wings.

His best years came later with the Blues and Bruins, the set-up man to Brett Hull in St. Louis (90 assists in 1990-91) and to Cam Neely in Boston (97 assists in 1992-93).

He made his first Cup final appearance with Washington in 1998, his Capitals quickly dismissed in four straight by the powerful Red Wings. Was it his last shot? A late-season trade to Philadelphia last year gave him hope although he later complained that he hated being a rent-a-player. The Flyers were beaten in the first round by Ottawa.

Then came unrestricted free agency and Oates seemingly gave up his Cup dreams by signing with Anaheim. He said at the time that he'd rather be a front-line player with the Ducks than sign with a team like the Wings and play five minutes a game, even if it meant playing on a team that didn't have a chance.

"I told him: 'If you want to win then sign with us,'" Ducks GM Bryan Murray recalled Wednesday.

Funny how things work out. Here he is after all, closer than he's ever been to drinking champagne from Lord Stanley's mug.

He's trying not to think about it.

"The good thing about playing every other day is you don't really have too much time to dwell on it," said Oates, who leads the Ducks in playoff scoring with 11 points (4-7). "You have meetings, you're focusing on the game, the next game at hand. That occupies your brain a lot. I reflected more after the last series because we had 12 days.

"Right now it just feels great to be here . . ."

And if he's getting nervous, he's got a friend in Weir.

Oates and Weir "talk all the time, almost every day," according to the Anaheim star. He's also tight with Weir's caddy, Brennan Little of St. Thomas, Ont. Both Weir and Little were in Anaheim for Game 4, flying all the way from Illinois where Weir practised for next week's U.S. Open. And Oates says they'll probably be there again for Game 6 on Saturday night.

"When I was in college I went to school with a couple of guys from his home town," Oates said of Weir. "And I met his brother then and signed with Detroit. So I was pretty tight with his brother during those four years in Detroit and met Mike through him."

What a year it's been for both camps. Weir, from Bright's Grove, Ont., became the first Canadian to win the Masters in April. Oates was on the phone to Weir nearly every day that week as well, offering encouragement.

A day before Weir's first round in Augusta, he was asked for a prediction on the Anaheim-Detroit first-round series. An avid Red Wings fan, Weir said he hoped Oates would score a few goals but thought the Wings would win in five games.

Word got back to Oates about that but he now laughs about it.

"Oh, yes, I know that," chuckled Oates. "But since we beat Detroit, he's been on the bandwagon." ROBTv Workopolis