EDMONTON — The trip from Boston to Edmonton is somewhere around 3,300 km. That is if you (heh, heh) believe what you read on the Internet.
For Andrew Ference the chasm seemed even further than that when he arrived in the dressing room of his hometown team a year ago, mere months after making a trip to the Stanley Cup final with the Boston Bruins.
Finding Edmonton was easy. He grew up just east of here in the suburb of Sherwood Park. Finding Edmonton’s pulse though, that was another story.
The Oilers had finished 30th 30th, 29th, 24th in the years prior to Ference’s arrival. Ference’s Bruins, over that span, had finished 14th, seventh, seventh and fifth, won a Stanley Cup in 2011 and lost the 2013 final to Chicago.
It was hockey’s version of the Jules Verne classic, but this was 20,000 Leagues Under the C — where ‘C’ stands for competitive.
“Last year I was meeting a lot of guys here for the first time. You could just sense the heaviness,” said Ference, the Oilers captain. “There was a weight being carried around, like they’re responsible for all the history of the Oilers. It was trending towards negativity.”
The fact that a culture of losing had set into the Edmonton Oilers dressing room is no statement on the players who inhabited it. Negativity will take root in any organization that loses as much as this one has in recent years.
So the path to a turnaround on the ice has to begin off of it. The organization has to make the right hires, find some players who bring hope, before the mood can ever change. Ference sees that in Edmonton this fall. From fitness to how early many veterans showed up in Edmonton to begin skating, there was just a pinch of Boston in this dressing room this September.
“To see positive things though the whole summer … it’s been so much more positive steps towards actually doing something about change. (Expunging) the ‘Woe is me,’ kind of thing,” he said. “The same things have been said here before, but now, maybe actions are louder than words. Guys working hard, putting in the hours to actually back up the talk. That speaks louder.”
Every hockey fan has heard it before about this Edmonton group. The question is, why is this season going to be any different than the last five?
For starters, there are now two NHL goaltenders in Ben Scrivens and Viktor Fasth. Neither are bona fide No. 1’s, but last season, hindsight being 20-20, Edmonton did not have a single NHL goaltender in Devan Dubnyk or Jason LaBarbera.
Still, there is no 60-game starter here. Or, at least, a goaltender that has carried the ball before.
“That’s not my problem to worry about how people want to label us,” said Ben Scrivens, the ex-Leaf and King who finished strongly last season as the No. 1 here, and stopped all but a close-in deflection in 40 minutes of work during Edmonton’s 3-1 pre-season win over Calgary on Sunday. “Whether we’re a tandem that goes back and forth, or one guy takes the reins and runs with it, that’s the coaching staff’s decision. I don’t think the team’s going to care, as long as we give the team a chance to win.”
On defence, the addition of experienced Mark Fayne and Nikita Nikitin give Edmonton six genuine NHL defencemen for the first time in many years. Seven if you count Keith Aulie, who struggled mightily Sunday. And a couple of 6-foot-3 depth wingers in Benoit Pouliot and Teddy Purcell are upgrades on Ryan Jones and an ageing Ryan Smyth last season.
So we see an improved lineup this fall, no question. Ference began to see an improved outlook even last season, during another descent into the abyss for Oilers fans.
“The start was so awful (four wins in first 21 games), but then the second half guys could see things building. Guys turning a corner, buying into a team concept, whether defensively, or in practice,” Ference said. “Guys go home for the summer and you have a choice: really work hard for this, or carry around the negativity. I think that might have happened in the past and I think guys have turned the page now. Enough is enough.
“You could have dug the hole even deeper, splintered off into an every man for himself (scenario). It could have happened. Overall, considering the start that we had, to trend towards the positive was impressive. Seeing guys not just go off and take care of themselves. It’s a decision guys made on their own.”
It can’t be rock bottom forever in Edmonton. It has to change.
If this group of players truly believes that it can, then perhaps the first step has already been taken.