– Twenty years removed from looking after Oilers forward Petr Klima
's lawn in the off-season in exchange for visits to team practices, Andrew Ference
's life and hockey career have come full circle.
The 34-year-old defenceman signed with the Oilers as a free agent on July 5 and made his first visit to Edmonton as a member of the team he grew up watching on Tuesday morning, meeting young players and signing autographs during Oilers Hockey School at Servus Place in St. Albert.
"(Klima) was my neighbour and I took care of his lawn when he was gone for the summer," Ference said, recalling his childhood growing up in Sherwood Park. "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."
A successful minor hockey career led to four seasons in the Western Hockey League with the Portland Winter Hawks, which eventually led to his NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1999-2000. Thirteen seasons later, after stints with Pittsburgh, Calgary and Boston, Ference is back in Oil Country where it all started.
"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 880 NHL regular season and playoff games combined. "There's a lot of history here, so it's great to come back to familiar surroundings."
Speaking of the team's rich history, Ference will continue to wear #21 as a member of the Oilers and sent a tweet (@Ferknuckle) on Saturday saying he's honoured to don the same number as Randy Gregg. The former Oilers blueliner played for all five Stanley Cup championship squads before becoming a doctor of sports medicine.
"My mom was a doctor in Sherwood Park, so he was always this mystical thing … Dr. Randy Gregg," Ference said. "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. I always looked up to him. In terms of being a role model off the ice, he's probably one of the best."
If the 2013-14 season were to start today, Ference would be the second-eldest member of the Oilers roster behind Ryan Smyth. He also brings with him a Stanley Cup title won with the Bruins in 2011 and 120 games worth of post-season experience. He said hopes to provide the same veteran leadership and experience to the Oilers squad that he received earlier in his career.
"The most impactful players are the guys who are themselves," said Ference, highlighting Lemieux and Jagr in Pittsburgh, Iginla, Gelinas and Warrener in Calgary, as well as Recchi in Boston as major influencers. "They're not trying too hard, it's not forced. Nobody's coming in with a script. People operate best when they can be themselves, be in a positive atmosphere and contribute to the team."
The Bruins finished last in the Northeast Division for the second straight year during Ference's first season in Boston in 2006-07. Just four seasons later, they were celebrating a Cup title, and Ference said he is excited with the prospect of being part of a similar path to success 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."
A high level of accountability will be paramount to the team's progression and desired success, Ference said.
"I come in feeling a huge responsibility, just like every guy on the team probably should. That's the only way to take the next step forward. Everybody has a personal responsibility. No matter where you fall on the depth chart or what age category you fall into, you have an important role on the team. It's very cliché, but hockey is a very, very important team sport. If you have anybody that feels like they're just along for the ride, it really drags you down."
In the days leading up to signing his contract with the Oilers, Ference had the opportunity to speak with the team's new head coach, Dallas Eakins, whom he believes is an ideal leader to instil that heightened level of awareness and responsibility.
"I think he's going to be demanding, and I think he's going to hold guys accountable," he said. "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."