The more things change, the more they stay the same.
At least, that’s what the hockey media will tell you about the Edmonton Oilers. Four games into what is supposed to be a breakthrough season, they are 1-3-0, have been outscored 19-12 and sit dead last in the Pacific division. And now is when guys like, well, me leap off the bandwagon and tell you this Edmonton team hasn’t learned a thing, that goaltending, grit and team defense remain a problem for this green group of flashy youngsters, new coach or not.
But there’s a difference maker in the room this season, a man who wears a Stanley Cup ring on his finger and a ‘C’ on his chest. It’s Andrew Ference, the former Bruin who grew up in Edmonton and is determined to change the dressing room culture. He’s the most eco-conscious player in the league, the closest thing it has to a hipster and he’s the thinking man’s hockey player. So when the going gets tough early on and the young Oilers appear in danger of slipping into old habits, it’s Ference’s job to get the team worrying less and pondering the game more.
“If you’re coming in after games and you’re scratching your head because you have no idea what went wrong, then you’re in trouble, because you’re lost and you’re not learning anything,” Ference said. “The thing is to come in and really think about what happened. What were the good parts of the game? What did we do right? What worked for us? And also, to really study the game as far as what happened. Not just on the goals, but what happened when the other team took over for a few minutes?”
Even though the Oilers boast some of the sport’s most exciting young scorers in Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Nail Yakupov, Ference received the captaincy and, today after the morning skate, Ference was the one holding court with a crowd of reporters. He’s second oldest player on the team at 34 and, believe it or not, the only current Oiler with a Stanley Cup. The hope is the talkative, pensive blueliner’s leadership rubs off on the star forwards and that he can teach a raw but promising offensive defenseman like Justin Schultz more about asserting himself in his own zone.
“We have two or three shifts where we’re like ‘Geez, this is great,’ everyone is doing their job and concentrating on the little things, there’s a real attention to detail,” Ference said. “And then it will just escape you for the next three shifts. That inconsistency just kills you. We go up against good teams that are more dialed in shift to shift and that’s when they jump on you. That’s what’s missing in our game right now.”
Coming home to Edmonton after playing six-and-a-half seasons in Boston is still just moving from one good hockey market to another for Ference, so there hasn’t been much culture shock. He has, naturally, enjoyed seeing a lot more of his entire extended family.
“It’s a bonus, it’s nice, but day to day, during the season it doesn’t change that much,” he said. “You’re coming to work on your craft, you’re spending so much time dedicated to hockey. It can be a different team, or different city, but players move around and it’s easier on us than it is on our families, because we’re jumping right into a situation we know. We’ve got our schedule, we’ve got our goals, we’ve got what we need to accomplish.
The only real change, he said with a laugh, is he spends way more time in the car. Now if only he can get the Oilers to spend less time in the basement.