The 34-year-old defenseman signed with the Oilers as a free agent July 5, and made his first visit to Edmonton as a member of the team he grew up watching Tuesday when he met young players and signed autographs during the Oilers Hockey School.
Two decades earlier, Ference was like those kids seeking autographs -- he mowed Oilers forward Petr Klima's lawn in exchange for being able to visit team practices.
"[Klima] was my neighbor and I took care of his lawn when he was gone for the summer," Ference told the Oilers' website, recalling his childhood growing up in Sherwood Park, Alberta. "My payment was getting to go to practices. I got to meet a ton of guys … It was a pretty neat experience for a kid to have with a guy like that."
Ference went on to play four seasons of junior hockey with the Portland Winterhawks in the Western Hockey League. He made his NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999-2000 and played with the Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins before signing a four-year deal with his hometown team.
"I grew up in Sherwood Park and my parents had Oilers season tickets, so I got to see the glory years and the Cup wins," said Ference, who has played 760 NHL regular-season games and another 120 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "There's a lot of history here, so it's great to come back to familiar surroundings."
Ference, who was a member of the Bruins' Stanley Cup-winning team in 2011, will keep his No. 21 with the Oilers. It's the same number that was worn by Randy Gregg, a defenseman who was a member of Edmonton's five championship teams from 1984-90 before becoming a doctor of sports medicine.
"It was really impressive to me, somebody who was able to concentrate on something outside of hockey and still be such a great hockey player," Ference said of Gregg. "I always looked up to him. In terms of being a role model off the ice, he's probably one of the best."
Ference currently is the second-oldest member of the Oilers, behind 37-year-old Ryan Smyth, and he realizes that his experience and leadership skills are important to a young team that includes Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov, the first players selected in the 2010, 2011 and 2012 NHL drafts, respectively. The Oilers are trying to break a playoff drought that extends to 2006, when they got to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final against the Carolina Hurricanes.
Ference was a member of the 2006-07 Boston team that finished last in the Northeast Division for the second straight year. Four years later, the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since 1972. He hopes to be part of a similar growth pattern on a young, talented team in Edmonton.
"Everybody now talks about Boston as so mature and battle-tested with all the playoff experience," he said. "But when I went there, it was a bunch of guys with no playoff experience and a team that hadn't been in the playoffs for a number of years. You realize how to build on potential and how the tide can turn fairly quickly.
"You look at [the Oilers] and how close the team is to getting over that hump. It's exciting. To see potential turn into reality is something I want to be a part of, especially in a city like this that cares so much."
Before signing with the Oilers, Ference had the opportunity to speak with new coach Dallas Eakins and liked what he heard.
"I think he's going to be demanding, and I think he's going to hold guys accountable," Ference said of Eakins, who was hired after coaching the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League for four seasons. "He expects professionalism, and that creates success. As a player, you don't want a coach who's just going to be a nice guy. There might be tough days here and there where you're the one being called out or held accountable, but that's the way it should be. We're here to win and create a culture of success, and that's the way to go about it."