MacKinnon: Thoughtful Mr. Ference strong candidate for Oilers captaincy
Veteran defenceman promotes environmentalism, gay rights and strong leadership on and off the ice
John MacKinnon, Edmonton Journal
Photograph by: Journal staff photo, Edmonton Journal
Originally published Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013
SHERWOOD PARK — Three days after Edmonton Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins joined a pre-dawn fitness “flash mob” led by Andrew Ference, the veteran defenceman skated through his coach’s baseline endurance test Wednesday with the rest of his teammates as training camp began at Millennium Place.
“His was good,” the 34-year-old Ference said of the high-tech stops-and-starts session that Eakins, a first-year NHL head man, opened camp with. “I think his excludes a lot of people that mine doesn’t.”
Ference scores high on the core value of inclusion, whether it’s leading average citizens in early-morning stair runs, doing pushups and jumping jacks, educating other NHL players in how to minimize their carbon footprint, or being part of a cohesive, successful and professional hockey team.
It’s a key reason he is one of a cluster of strong candidates — including Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner — for the Oilers captaincy, which was vacated when longtime captain Shawn Horcoff was traded to the Dallas Stars in the off-season. Not that he’s fixated on that outcome.
“You spend enough time on successful teams you realize that it’s an honour to have letters on your jersey, but — it sounds a bit clichéd — it’s a group leadership thing that successful teams have,” Ference said. “Never should that elevate you to a different level of having more of a voice in the room, or your opinion being any more important.
“The most effective teams I’ve been on have had input from the fourth-line guys, from the young guys, from the old guys, from the coach. And they’re listened to and respected.”
Thoughtful Mr. Ference has spoken about more than just hockey-related issues.
For example, Ference talked about the intervention by Brian Burke, the new Calgary Flames president of hockey operations, and the ongoing international debate over Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law that was passed June.
Burke, whose late son Brendan was gay, has been a passionate voice for gay rights. As is his son, Patrick, who helped found the You Can Play charity that champions gay rights in sport.
Sports Illustrated recently published Brian Burke’s powerful denunciation of what is happening in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, less than six months away from the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Ference believes the overarching hockey family has become more socially aware in recent years, partly as a reflection of changes in society and partly owing to the leadership of people like the Burkes.
“You know, the league and the world has changed,” Ference said. “The new crop that comes in every year are not the same as the guys from 20 years ago.
“Now, I think guys are growing up in a world where it’s wrong to exclude people. And you’re growing up with friends that are open about being gay or lesbian.
“I look at my own daughters and her school in Boston. In her class alone, she had, I think, three same-sex couple parents. So, that’s the world they grow up in.
“How could they ever see that as right to exclude those people?”
Ference cares about community. He has made thoughtful contributions wherever he has played, including his work with the NHL Players’ Association’s Carbon Neutral Challenge, a project born of conversations he had with environmentalist and mentor David Suzuki.
In Boston, Ference has worked with the city’s recycling, bike share programs and a campaign that promotes less car use. And the November Project, which is a mass appeal fitness movement he imported to Edmonton from Boston.
“As an athlete, you have a huge platform,” Ference said. “And your actions definitely speak louder than words.”
When it was suggested to him that, even in 2013, his socially aware approach to life remains far from commonplace, Ference said: “I think it isn’t commonplace, but I think it’s a bit ridiculous that it isn’t. Because I think we are a huge part of the community.”
Ference said the personal benefits of what has come to be called “giving back,” are massive as well.
“You get rid of that barrier of I’ve got my little bubble, please stay out of it,” he said. “There’s no need for that.”
Ference has cultivated “a ton of friendships outside of hockey” that are built on a foundation of community involvement, not pro hockey.
“People get over the B.S. of getting an autograph, or something like that, because they realize they can just have a conversation with you,” Ference said.
Any wonder he’s a strong candidate for captain of the Oilers?
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