Andrew Ference played 16 seasons in the NHL, but the former Edmonton Oilers captain says he may never have played a single game in the world’s premier league had he not advocated for himself as a teenager.
“Who knows what would’ve happened?” Ference says.
Now 40 years old and with his playing days behind him, Ference’s advocacy work hasn’t stopped. He’s spent the past two years working as the NHL’s Director of Social Impact, Growth and Legislative Affairs.
And as part of that role, Ference will be headed to Yellowknife for the 20th edition of Hockey Day in Canada, from Feb. 5-8. He chatted with Sportsnet about what his job entails, the letter he faxed to NHL general managers years ago, progress he’d like to see at the grassroots level, the best part about winning the Stanley Cup, and what he’ll get up to in Yellowknife.
SPORTSNET: I imagine it’s going to be pretty crisp up there in Yellowknife.
AF: I imagine, too. [Laughs] I think there’s some indoor contingency plans if it gets too brisk. It’s called Hockey Day, but really for us and the community that gets to host, it’s that few days of events, and it’s really special. In the past when I was playing, it’s a game day, you’re getting ready for it. The best part about it was you could turn on the TV early and catch a couple games.
But last year I was [in Swift Current] for the festivities and it was great. It’s pretty special to see all the Canadian kids outside, despite the temperature, playing for hours. It’s such a pure form of the game.
What will you be doing during the event?
AF: I’ll be running all over the place. I’ll be involved in some of the alumni events, taking part in the kickoff banquets … some school visits. There’s an on-ice skill session and an off-ice component, and I’ll be taking part in that with a bunch of youth in the community. I’m probably most excited for that.
Then we’re hosting a declaration of principles breakfast, which we did last year. We had the Stanley Cup there, we had members of the hockey community locally, some of the women’s players. It’s a bit of a forum for talking about, “Why do we play this game? Why do we love this game?” And really getting into how do we embrace what’s special about hockey and brings our community together. And then, also, how do we make sure that we maintain that?
What are the biggest challenges in the game right now from your perspective at the grassroots level?
AF: When we get into the growth of the game and youth hockey, my No. 1 metric is fun. Did you have a good time? There are certain issues. There’s issues of feeling welcome in some venues where we’ve seen instances of racism or bullying or what have you that we have to confront. I mean they’re not rampant, but they’re massive issues. The fact that somebody might walk away from the rink and say, “No, I didn’t have fun and here’s the reasons why.” Those are people we really have to listen to and issues we have to sort through. As far as growing the game, making people feel welcome, and when they think of hockey they think of a fun and inclusive environment. I think there is a gap there, if we’re being honest with ourselves.
That’s a daunting task to try to help tackle.
AF: It’s huge. But you know what, it’s a communal thing. It’s easy to go through a laundry list of what’s wrong, what we need to fix — and I think it’s important to talk about those things — but it’s also incredibly important to acknowledge all the great things of the game. But the proper environment has to be there.
So I think, yes, at the NHL level, trying to initiate conversations, making sure we’re implementing positive changes in the programming we have our hands on and the partners that we work with. And not just being ignorant to the fact that some of the issues are there. It’s a big task and a big responsibility. But we’re also the NHL, so we have to be proper stewards of the game, not only at our level but at the youth level. We want lots of people playing and loving this sport of ours.
You’ve been in your job two years. What have you seen so far in terms of change or program implementation that you’re most proud of?
AF: In two short years, the support of female hockey has been skyrocketing.
One of the first things I got involved in — a good friend of mine is Hayley Wickenheiser; we trained together in the off-season when I was still playing. She runs an event called WickFest. Seeing WickFest operate, the way it’s a hockey tournament but also this whole life-skills-building tournament — you can do different sessions, try different sports, learn about karate, learn about wrestling. It’s kind of empowerment sessions and mindfulness. There’s a giant opening dance party at the beginning of the tournament, and you go there and you just see such joy.
I witnessed this before taking the job and I wanted other people to see and know about this, and that’s something that now we support at the NHL level — her tournament and trying to learn from that kind of template of what are the best practices out there to give these experiences to kids. It’s more than trying to go out there and win the trophy. It’s developing the person.
Not only am I really proud to see the growth of girls’ programming and the female game, but it’s also what the rest of our programming is learning from the girls’ game, because quite frankly, they’re doing it better than a lot of the boys’ programming. You compare an experience like Wickfest to a lot of goys’ tournaments and, man, it blows it out of the water as far as an experience to go home and really reflect on.
You did a lot of advocacy work in your career, and even advocated for yourself early on. You’ve got to tell the story of how you wrote to every GM in the NHL during your draft year.
AF: [Laughs] The backstory on why I did it: I had a good first couple years of junior. We had great teams in Portland — I made the All-Star Game. When it came time [for my] draft year, Central Scouting’s out there and [I’m] getting the list of where everybody’s ranked, and I wasn’t ranked anywhere. I was like, “What gives!?” I didn’t think I was that horrible. And the thing about getting ranked through Central Scouting, that’s when you get invited to the Combine and get run through fitness testing. One of my biggest strengths was my fitness testing.
The University of Alberta, they have all the testing you’d see at the Combine, so I went and did my own, got all my scores, and that was what the letter was: “Hey, Mr. GM, due to not being ranked in Central Scouting, I took it upon myself to do my testing. Here’s my scores, which I think will help to prove that I’m worthy of being drafted. Here’s why you should draft me.”
I was always taught just do what you can control. There are things in life you can’t control, but everything that you can control, man, do everything you can to put everything in your favour. That was one of those things. You do the work, stick your neck out, don’t be afraid to send an email. Shoot your shot. If I didn’t do that, maybe I never play a single NHL game, right?
And then you backed that letter up.
AF: Pittsburgh drafted me in the 8th round. I think I was 205th or 200-something overall, an incredibly late pick, but I was pumped. “Alright, my foot’s in the door — I actually get a chance now.” Then that next chance turns into an opportunity. My very first training camp — it sounds a bit brutish now — but I went out and got in a fight against the first-round pick right away. You do whatever you can to get your foot in the door. It’s not easy being a late-round pick, but there’s a way.
Write letters, get in a fight and be really fit. Boom.
AF: Whatever you can do. When I was a veteran and playing for a long time, nothing drove me more crazy than seeing a kid get his very first chance to play an NHL game and to see them be timid about it. Oh, man — this might be the only chance you ever get. When you finally get your chance and you see somebody be timid, it’s heartbreaking and infuriating at the same time.
How long did it take you to feel comfortable in the NHL, like you’d stick there?
AF: Probably 10 years. [Laughs] Quite a while. Honestly, I think there was probably a couple levels. My second year in Pittsburgh we made the playoffs and there were some injuries so I actually got to play a lot in the playoffs and did well. That was a huge hurdle to get over. But really if you’re not a star in the game, you’re just treading water as fast as you can to keep your head above. There’s so many people that want that job. The type of player I was and the position I played on our team [meant] you’re in a dog fight every year in training camp to keep your position and to try to do things better than the guy that’s trying to take your position. So, comfort …. Honestly? It’s funny to say 10 years, but you’re really fighting 10 years for your job.
Looking back on winning the Cup in 2011 with Boston, can you even pick a highlight?
AF: The last two minutes in Vancouver when we finally realized, “This is happening.” [Laughs] “They’re not coming back.” To be able to soak in a couple minutes of what was happening, realizing that life-long dream, it’s like, “Oh, this is real!” [Laughs] When you’re a kid, you have dreams of wining and you just picture the Stanley Cup, how cool would that be, but it’s always sort of this mythical creature. When you come to the realization that, “No, this is the thing,” that was a really special couple minutes to take it all in on the bench. It’s funny when you get to that stage, you try to lock in so many emotions, right? You’re not trying to get too high — you’re not trying to get too low. Really, it’s not healthy suppressing emotions for a couple months and finally you have the opportunity to let it out. It’s not only the realization of a life-long dream, it’s finally you can release the valve, all the emotions you’ve bottled up.
Playing for your hometown team and ending your career in Edmonton must’ve been a treat, too.
AF: Incredibly special to pull on the jersey, play in the rink, go in the locker room. Everything. Most of my family and friends, even though I went and played for other teams, we all remained Oilers fans. [Laughs] So to finally actually have the real support of people was great. I actually started with a bit of a childhood dream too because Pittsburgh was my other favourite team in the NHL because Paul Coffey played there. I was a huge Paul Coffey fan and then obviously Mario, the team they had when I was growing up. I got a Mario jersey for Christmas when I was probably 12. A few years later I’m playing with the guy. I started my career off with a childhood dream and I ended it with a bookend with another childhood dream.
SN: How’s your game looking these days, and how often are you playing? You’ve got the Hockey Day in Canada alumni game coming up.
AF: Just a handful of times a year. It’s funny. I love it, but honestly when I retired it was, “OK, now I have time to do other things I didn’t have time to do before.” I can get out and go snowboarding. I ride my bike a lot more. I even have a pair of speed skates.
You hit up the oval?
AF: Yeah, we have an oval here in Edmonton. I get down there once in a while. I can finally do all these other things that hockey somewhat restricted me from. It’s a lot of fun.
Thanks very much for this. Stay warm in Yellowknife.
AF: Thank you, I’ll try.