EDMONTON – It is as predictable an event as the hiring of a new head coach here in Oil Country, the threat that the Edmonton Oilers are mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore.
“Everyone is sick of being disappointed at the end of the year. Sick and tired of it,” said freshly minted captain Andrew Ference, before adding that time honoured kicker: “It’s a different feeling in here this year.”
Yeah, sure. It’s always a different feeling in September; then Oilers fans get the same old gut punch in February or March. But Ference, who was named the Oilers 14th captain at a soiree at owner Daryl Katz’s mansion Saturday night, added one more, seldom heard condition.
“Now, we’ve got to prove it.”
And prove it they did with the naming of Ference as captain ahead of emerging star left-winger Taylor Hall. The Oilers want their young core to learn something about punching back once in a while, or dropping a heavy stick on an opponent’s calf when that opponent has just done the same thing.
Will Jordan Eberle raise his middle finger high to Canucks fans after a goal, as Ference once did in Montreal? Well, if these young Oilers did cross a line now and again, at least you could say they’ve found that emotional target that has disappeared from this franchise’s radar for so long.
“I have a vision for this organization on how we’re going to play, but more importantly how we’re going to carry ourselves-and we’re not even close to being there yet,” said head coach Dallas Eakins, who wants a team that will stick up for each other a lot more than Edmonton has in recent seasons. “It’s important to get the right guy in place, who … has the same values, and is totally, 100 per cent selfless.”
Think of how Hall plays, with speed, flash and grace. Then think of how Ference plays: punching above his weight-and sometimes below the belt. Eakins has to mould a winning dressing room and on-ice culture in Edmonton, and he chose Ference to lead the way.
“It was easy,” the coach said of the decision.
The 34-year-old is a battling, gritty veteran of three Stanley Cup finals who will instill Boston’s winning culture in a dressing room filled with Hall, Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz, Sam Gagner, Devan Dubnyk – a collective with zero NHL playoff games. They need to see firsthand that, just because you’re smaller than the opponent, it doesn’t mean you can’t lay a heavy cross check on him when he’s in your slot, a Ference trademark.
“The Edmonton Oilers identity isn’t going to be a group of guys trying to stickhandle through the whole team. Razzle dazzle, and hope they win eight 8-0,” Ference said. “It’s going to be an identity based around putting the team first.
“This team, without a doubt, has a lot of skill, and has a lot of pieces that other teams wish they had. But I think what it’s struggled with, is having a strong identity,” he continued. “That talent, and all the things this team has, that’s icing on the cake. A bonus. A captain’s responsibility is to live that identity day in and day out.”
Ference arrived in Edmonton this summer and started leading on Day 1.
“He didn’t tip toe into the dressing room,” Eakins said.
Nor the city, his hometown. He brought with him from Boston the November Project, assembling pre-dawn flash mobs of local workout types at an ever-changing Edmonton location. He’s been involved in the NHLPA’s Carbon Neutral Challenge, speaks out on behalf of the LGBT community and You Can Play, and the socially aware D-man has injected conversation on composting into the Oilers dressing room.
“As soon as (Ference) got here he displayed a lot of the qualities that are needed on this team,” said Hall, who is best left to learning a new position and producing top-10 scoring numbers. “I’m completely fine with the role that I have. I do have enough on my plate. I’m trying to learn to play centre, and being a captain would be a lot.”
Ference’s primary hockey influence was Portland junior coach Brent Peterson, and he lists former teammates Mario Lemieux, Jarome Iginla, Zdeno Chara, Marty Gelinas and Rhett Warrener when asked who shaped him as a leader.
“They all personify that commitment to do whatever they can to try and be what the team is striving to be. They’re all in. They don’t just kind of dabble. They’re fully committed.”
Nearly a PIM-per-game guy (645 penalty minutes in 760 NHL games), Ference has played in 120 playoff contests – more than any other Oiler on a team that has the longest playoff drought in the league.
“It’s easy to talk about how you want to change, or what you want other teams to think of you. But actually doing it … living it, letting your actions speak? That takes a lot of work,” Ference said.
The new identity must include how not to make the big mistake in a tense, 1-1 game. How to punch back once in a while, or deliver a tough hit on a Sedin after some Canuck takes a run at one of your guys.
An identity that comes with a bandage and an ice bag on that bus ride out of Rexall Place, instead of two points and a free ride, as it’s been for road teams on so many nights in Edmonton.
The identity is about growing up, and it’s about time that became a priority here in Edmonton.