On a rare day when Micheal Ferland isn’t surrounded by a horde of media-types asking about his latest heroics as an unlikely addition to the Calgary Flames top line, he sits in a quiet corner of the dressing room, reflecting.
Happy, healthy and engaged to the mother of his 10-month-old daughter, his life and his career are moving in a far better direction than they were three years ago.
Back then his life was dominated by a rage he fueled with alcohol, jeopardizing everything he has today.
“I just couldn’t have two beers — I’d want to keep going,” said a candid Ferland, 24, of a drinking problem he developed shortly after he started drinking at 15. “I was a pretty aggressive person. I was always trying to pick fights. It was pretty dumb. Thinking about the stories now, there were just a lot of embarrassing moments. All the dumb stuff I ever did I was always drunk. When I went out I would just do dumb s–t.”
Caught up in a hockey culture in which regular nights out on the town as a Brandon Wheat King turned into sloppy incidents, the hulking winger was regularly lectured by team owner/coach/GM Kelly McCrimmon, who’d heard plenty of reports about Ferland’s antics.
“I had meetings about all the s--t I was getting into. It was always when I was drunk,” said Ferland, who had 47 goals and 96 points in 68 games his final year of junior despite his demons. “He would always tell me, ‘Every time you are in my office it’s because you were partying.’”
His career was further jeopardized in the summer of 2012 when Ferland was involved in an incident outside a Cochrane, Alta., bar where he dropped a patron with one punch, breaking a bone in his face that required surgery.
Two years later a jury acquitted him of all charges as Ferland was able to explain he was defending himself from an unprovoked attack while out with his now-fiancee, Kayleigh Chapman, and his aunt.
“That wasn’t a low,” he said, despite the negative publicity that stemmed from the incident and trial. “That was just me going out to have fun with Kayleigh and my aunt, and a group of guys wanting to pick a fight. I just ended up being in the wrong place at the wrong time, defending myself. It was unfortunate the way things played out."
The drinking didn’t stop in the minors or in Calgary, where Ferland now admits he regularly showed up for practices and workouts hung over, unable to give his career the full focus it deserved.
With a six-foot-two, 225-lb. frame, all-world hands and a cannon of a shot, Ferland had all the tools to be a regular NHLer. But the toolbox was corroded by the booze he overindulged in far too often.
And everyone, including then-Flames coach Bob Hartley, knew it.
“Some mornings I’d show up at the rink and be throwing up after workouts and Bob would challenge me and ask what I was doing the night before,” said Ferland. “He’d say, ‘If you need anything we’re here and we can help you.’
"I thought about it in my head but I just wasn’t ready at the time. If anyone ever asks me for advice I tell them, ‘It comes from within. You’ve got to want to change. No one is going to make you change.’”
With several people in his ear about getting help, at one point he tried quitting by himself.
That didn’t work.
The low point came in December 2013 when a promising start to the season in Abbotsford was punctuated by an unfortunate turn of events.
“I had a meeting with [Abbotsford coach] Troy [Ward] and he told me I was going to get called up, so to be ready,” said Ferland. “And then that day I hurt my knee in practice."
Instead of a call-up, he ended up having season-ending knee surgery.
"That month was a hard month. I was depressed and angry," said Ferland. “I went on one last little binge and I came in [to the Saddledome] and I was so sick. I woke up one morning and I was so sick of myself. That’s when I went to talk to Bob and [Flames president of hockey operations] Brian Burke.”
Within days he was in a California rehab centre where he was able to work on the root of his drinking problem as well as anger-and-relationship issues.
He’s since more dedicated to his fitness and his general well-being, which is paying off in every way possible.
“When I went to rehab I figured out a lot of stuff deep down - my relationship with my father,” said Ferland, who was raised by his mother and sister, and visited his dad sporadically until they stopped talking once hockey got serious. “They taught me a lot of things. It helped me, it really did. I’m fortunate because obviously I have changed.”
March 27 will mark the third anniversary of his sobriety and he’ll celebrate it as a flourishing member of the Flames.
A mucker most of the season, expected to simply crash and bang, he made good on a late-February promotion to the top line alongside Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. Opening up space for the two stars who have since broken out as part of the team’s recent 10-game winning streak, Ferland is a trigger man whose deadly shot has found the net six times in 11 outings.
The apparent chemistry has bolstered his stock as a fan favourite and allowed the Flames to hold off on a top-line trade-deadline rental that would have cost a high draft pick.
“It has all kind of happened so quickly,” said the Flames’ fifth-round pick from tiny Swan River, Man., who didn’t play high-level hockey until age 15 and counted on KidSport and the Manitoba Metis Foundation to help pay for his equipment as a kid.
“Thinking back, I really stop and think now where I’m at and where I was. It’s pretty unbelievable," said Ferland. “Obviously I knew coming into this year it was a big year and I wanted to play up in the top six, but I didn’t expect things to take off like they are.
"The biggest thing for me is confidence. Playing with confidence I’m a way better player – just trusting my shot. They want me to be selfish and shoot more.”
Nothing did more for his mindset than his playoff showing two years back when he exploded onto the scene as a one-man wrecking crew instrumental in the Flames' first-round win over Vancouver.
Scoring three times and adding a few helpers in nine memorable outings that spring, Calgary fell in love with the rugged youngster who averaged eight hits a game, fought several times and did well to infuriate Kevin Bieksa and the Canucks nightly.
He calls it the most exciting time of his life — an experience he hopes to recreate this spring.
“That was just a totally different style. I just put everything on the line,” smiled the pending restricted free agent who will certainly be one of the Flames’ seven forwards protected in the Vegas expansion draft.
“Obviously it's tough to go out and get seven or eight hits a game, but I’m for sure going to be more physical when the time comes. We’ve put ourselves in a good spot here, winning those 10 in a row. I just want to get back to playing playoff hockey because that’s fun hockey.”
Saving his aggression for the ice, Ferland obviously avoids the bar scene, spending precious time with his new family where he’s at peace.
“I’m definitely a different person than I was,” he said. “It’s hard to explain but I definitely don’t have as much anger inside me. I think it’s changed me and my daughter has changed me.
“My mindset now is that this is a job and I’ve got to take care of my daughter — my girls. When I have a hard day at the rink I go home and I spend the day with her and I don’t think about the game — I can just be a father.”
All that wouldn’t have been possible had he not taken the most courageous step of his life three years back.
“I don’t even know where I’d be,” he said, staring blankly ahead. “I definitely wouldn’t have my daughter. I don’t think I’d be dead, but I’d be out of hockey.”