EDMONTON — This city was consumed on Monday by Spider-Mable and the hunt for kidnapped Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference, a heart-warming, day-long orchestration for a cancer-stricken six-year-old named Mable Tooke, all thanks to the selfless work of the Children’s Wish Foundation and many others.
That Ference eventually found himself at the Edmonton Valley Zoo being freed from the clutches of Mysterio by our super hero Spider-Mable won’t surprise anyone who has watched the Oiler captain’s charitable side since coming to Edmonton from Boston two seasons ago, slapping the “C” on his chest before playing a game as an Oiler.
“You see a smile on a kid’s face? You can’t put a price on that,” Ference said when the day was done. “Especially somebody who’s gone through a pretty tough time like her.”
It’s the kind of off-ice leadership that defines an NHL captain.
“What’s the saying? ‘With great power comes great responsibility?’” said Edmonton winger Taylor Hall. “As you mature, you find out how you can help out. Andy’s found the free fitness thing and other initiatives that he believes in.
“It’s very noble, and a good example for guys like me. You always have a little bit more to give, and he’s a guy who genuinely wants to help out. It’s quite impressive.”
Ference has been seen during the summers leading 6 AM workouts at parks throughout the city, or running stairs at Commonwealth Stadium with the many drop-in members of his November Project. He has accomplished so much humanitarian work here he was given the King Clancy Award two seasons ago as the most community-minded NHL player.
But what of his on-ice game? Well today, as the 36-year-old looks at an improved defensive corps while chalking up another year on the calendar, there is an elephant in the room when his name arises.
Can he even make the Top 7 on this team?
“That’s what we wanted — competition,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan, when asked about the battle Ference finds himself in. “I’m going to leave Andrew Ference out of it and I’m going to talk about the 10 [remaining defencemen in camp]. Not only are some guys fighting to get into the lineup, they’ll be fighting for ice time, and that’s what we want.
“And I think he’s got a bigger job today, getting away from Mysterio,” added McLellan at his early afternoon press conference. “We may never see him again if [Spider-Mable] can’t rescue him.”
Ference has two years left on a contract with an AAV of $3.25 million, a product of the former management regime that was willing to overpay older free agents to, theoretically, speed up the rebuild. Ironically, it was Peter Chiarelli who was the Boston Bruins GM that told Ference before the playoffs even began in 2013 that cap constraints would mean the Bruins would not be keeping Ference once the season was over.
Then Chiarelli jumped to Edmonton, where he rightly spotted the blue-line as the place most in need of shoring up. Since taking the job this past summer Chiarelli has acquired Andrej Sekera, Eric Gryba and Griffin Reinhart.
At the bottom of a defensive corps that still needs work, you’ve got Ference, Nikita Nikitin, Gryba and Reinhart fighting for one opening night pairing. That’s three 6-foot-4 D-men and the 5’11” Ference — and that’s assuming that 6’4” Darnell Nurse starts his pro career at AHL Bakersfield.
So as Ference continues to imbed himself in the community, making newscasts across Canada on Monday alongside Spider-Mable, his place among the Oilers starting six defenceman is in serious peril, his game in need of super powers that can take him back to his feisty, finger-raising days as a Bruins stalwart in his late 20’s.
On a team this young, with a handful of possible stars who might one day find themselves playing for a relevant team in a relevant hockey town again, Ference’s off-ice commitment is a genuinely perfect template for players like Connor McDavid, Jordan Eberle, Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
“Andrew does set such a great example with that, and we do have a younger group that needs some [leadership in that area],” said Nugent-Hopkins. “When Smytty [Ryan Smyth] was here, he was really involved too. It gives you an idea about the steps you should be making once you get established in the league.”
But in order to have the kind of impact Ference has had in Edmonton over the past two seasons — or to maintain the captaincy here, for that matter — you have to be able to stay in the league, and play in the league.
How many nights can a captain spend in the press box before he can’t be the captain anymore?
Tune in next week to find out.