Former Oilers captain, Andrew Ference, appeared on the latest episode of the 31 Thoughts podcast and spent a little bit of time talking about his time in Edmonton. As you can expect based on how bad the team was while he was here, some of what he said wasn’t overly complimentary but it was still interesting to listen to his perspective on what went wrong in his tenure with the team. Let’s break it down.
WHAT HAPPENED IN EDMONTON
I’m sure anyone reading this can remember how bad things were during Ference’s tenure in Edmonton and when asked about what went wrong, he pointed to the environment as a major cause of the problem.
I think there’s a combination of elements that go into it. I think that, like I said, that aspect of feeling more scared to make a mistake and be the whipping boy rather than being bold and taking your chances and having that confidence to try the play. I think some guys might get into that role of just being scared to be the whipping boy. I don’t know if that makes sense.
Ah, yes, we love a whipping boy in Edmonton, don’t we? Why is that? I don’t know, but it’s definitely something that we should look at. Anyway, please continue.
Your urge to win and be bold is less than your urge to not be the whipping boy or stand out, right. So I think that is one aspect. I think that the quickness that radio or newspaper or fans jump and attack their own guys is horrible. I think that the quickness to defend players within the organization… I remember Jeff Petry or Schultz getting raked over the coals and nobody coming to defend them, and then just trading them when their value – after they’ve beaten them down for months – then trading them. It’s like, ‘God.’
Man, trading guys at their worst value level is a real problem that hasn’t seemed to get any better since you left and it’s a real issue. And yeah, I definitely remember how salty people were with Justin Schultz but they were also sold lines of goods by the GM that inflated expectations well beyond what the media or fans did. Remember the Norris potential interview? I do. I also think it’s important to remember how the vibe changed around here in 2016-17 when the boys finally made it back to the playoffs. I don’t remember a whole lot of negativity going around then, was there? Andrew, I think you’d know just as well as anyone that winning erases all of that negative chatter, but when your favourite team has missed the playoffs for 10 straight years then I think it’s more than fair for the fans that continue buying tickets and merch to be pissed off.
We lost a lot of games and got scored on a ton but there is a narrative where it’s just easy to write about something and stick to it whether it’s a player or a concept or whatever it is. You stick to it and it’s fun to write negative things on it and I’m sure that people that call into the show have lots to talk about. It makes it easy. It’s an easy way to talk about a crappy situation.
Again, I agree that the coverage of the team has been harsh at times, I’m as guilty as anyone of doing that, but I also wonder what we’re supposed to do in those times? Are we supposed to let you piss in our ear and tell us it’s raining? I don’t know, man. That’s a tough one. Eventually, it’s hard to put lipstick on a pig and convince people we’re looking at Miranda Kerr.
As any Oilers fan knows, there have been a lot of years where the team has been so bad that it’s tough to even wrap your head around it. When asked about the issues in Edmonton during his time here, he started pointing fingers at guys that were allegedly more interested in partying than playing.
I think the most frustrating part for me as a player, like I said, when I went in there straight from Boston where talk is cheap. Dallas Eakins is a fantastic coach that there’s another whipping boy that got dragged over the coals. He was a fantastic coach that was dealt just a pure crap hand in a team that would actually listen. You had a group of players that talked about how they wanted to make the playoffs and talked about how sick they were of losing; and then by game three, after losing 6-1, they’re straight out to the bar until 3 in the morning lighting up the nightlife scene in Edmonton. Like, come on – give me a break. It was to the point where it was ridiculous.
Yeah, but have you been clubbing in Edmonton? Straight fire, bro. Straight fire.
The lifestyle was way more important than playing the game and making the playoffs. But like I said, talk is cheap.
To me, this is a problem of handing over the franchise to a bunch of kids that weren’t ready for it, which points to management not having a proper plan in place. Yes, the guys you’re hinting at should have been more professional in their approach to being in the NHL but it was also up to the organization to have the pieces in place to show them how to do that, no? Where were the skilled vets? Where were the life coaches to teach 18 year olds how to handle what was happening to them?
Even in practice, you came from a group where you’re practicing against guys like Bergeron or Chara and you’re going at each other with in-game intensity. And that’s how you get better. That’s how you be a playoff contender. That’s how you be a champion. And you try to instill some of those values. We had other guys that had been on playoff teams, and they had the same frustrations. They’d come and practice hard and there’s a group of guys there that had ‘Too cool to try hard.’ They had derogatory terms for trying too hard in practice. That’s the culture, right.
I have a question, though. If you’re the captain and Dallas Eakins was such a great coach then why didn’t you guys step up and do something? I’m not talking about saying something, but actually doing something about it. I mean, if the boys aren’t practicing hard and making fun of those that do then what’s to stop the coach from benching them for a game or so? That’s a thing that happens sometimes, ya know? The coach is their boss after all. And I also know you said that the younger guys didn’t respect the role players as much so then why didn’t you, as the team’s captain, grab someone and shake em up a little bit? Where’s the intervention? I saw two Blues players fighting at practice today and maybe that’s what some of these youngsters needed.
You could’ve had any kind of defence or any kind of system but if you go out on a western swing and your guys are out every single night until five in the morning, you’re not going to win too many games.
Well, I can’t argue with that but I still think that those late nights should have been stopped before they turned into being acceptable. I mean, how many times did it happen and why wasn’t anyone healthy scratched because of it? To put it another way, if I let my dog Frank continuously piss in the house without teaching him to go outside then he’s going to keep doing it.
One thing we love to talk about in Edmonton is the culture of the hockey team and Ference dove into those waters head first.
I think over the years there have been attempts to disrupt the culture whether it was Eakins or me or Pronger — whoever it was — different people came in to disrupt.
Wait… you’re not going to start this off by comparing yourself to Pronger, are you? Sorry, that was rude of me. Go on.
But I know personally, it was really hard for me. You come in as an older guy, but far from being one of the better players on the team. So you can be a leader with experience, but I’m not a game changer. I’m like a number four or five defenceman. So your voice only goes so far with people that only respect how good your toe drag is and whether or not you’re out partying. So your voice doesn’t carry much weight with people that don’t put value on those aspects that I was bringing from Boston, or that Dallas was trying to instill in the team.
Again, you don’t seem to be accepting any responsibility for what happened and it seems more like you and Dallas were buddies more so than two guys with a player/coach relationship. There has to be more accountability than that. Earlier on, you talked about guys thinking it was dumb to practice hard and how they even had names for the nerds that did, but I highly doubt we’ll hear anything like that with Ken Hitchcock around. You think Hitch will let guys mail it in at practice without holding them accountable? No chance.
It wasn’t only frustrating but it pissed me off because it was a waste of years of your NHL career. You never get those back and you see a coach like Dallas get treated really unfairly. Was he perfect, no? He’d be the first to admit that he’d do some of those things differently but taking the blame for (everything)? What are you supposed to do with a culture like that?
Listen, I’m not going to doubt that there were problems in the room if you say there were but I also have questions. If Dallas Eakins was treated so unfairly in Edmonton then why hasn’t he been given another head coaching job in the NHL? Are the other 30 teams also unfair? I’m just asking.
Around these parts, Milan Lucic has been the topic of conversation for the better part of two seasons now and, being someone that knows him, Ference was asked about what he’s going through right now.
Well, he’s got as much pride as anybody. He absolutely loves being in the NHL. He loves playing an important role on a team. I see the same frustrations that I had too going to Edmonton about certain aspects of going there, especially coming from… when you’ve seen a dialled-in culture and team and how it’s operating and you go to something different, it can be extremely frustrating.
Yes, Andrew, but like you, Milan was brought in to help bring a winning mentality to a group that desperately needed it. When he signed, Looch talked about bringing some swagger back to the City of Champions and we all ate it up. Last season, there was no such thing as swagger. For me personally, I would be completely fine with the decline in his goal scoring so long as he’s out there destroying worlds and making the opposition poo themselves like he did last night against Calgary.
Being from Edmonton, and I grew up in Sherwood Park, I’ve seen it a million times. There’s always a sacrificial lamb on the team that just gets roasted by the radio guys and newspaper guys and then the fans just continue that on. I think he’s obviously taken that a bit, and you’ve always got the target on your back with the big contract. And he’d be the first to admit that he should be getting more points and scoring more goals. You get all of that. But it’s tough. It’s really tough to play there and to be the centre of so much negativity. I don’t care who you are. Negativity gets to you, and it usually doesn’t help you at all.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been harsh on Lucic over these past two seasons, mostly last year now that I’m thinking about it, but I don’t think things are all that bad for him with the media or fans right now. I was at the game last night and heard the crowd chanting his name after he got into that scrap with Peluso and after every big hit he threw. If you don’t get it, fans in Edmonton will get behind you if you’re playing like you care and that’s the difference from this season over last. This season, Lucic is going out and banging and crashing and doing the things he’s still able to do that help the team win even though he’s not scoring and that’s what needs to happen. That’s all we want. We want to watch a winning hockey team so do what you can to help them get there. In Lucic’s case, he’s doing that right now.
So it’s tough for him. I think it’s tough for any player transitioning from a really super-important role on a team to a secondary role on the ice. I think he’s still incredibly important in the room, and I think that’s probably – whenever I’ve talked to him – it’s goals and assists and sometimes your play can dip and change and sometimes it’s luck and sometimes you’re just kind of not playing so good. But you can always do the stuff in the room and create that culture and lead off the ice. You always have pretty much full control of that. That shouldn’t dip and ebb and fall off the map.
And this, right here, is exactly what I’m talking about. Even without the goal scoring, Lucic still can go out and create space for his teammates and patrol the ice like some kind of war machine. When he does that, everyone will have his back. It’s playing like you don’t care that Oilers fans have a problem with, and I don’t see that at all with Lucic this year.
It’s just that when you’ve had really successful seasons like he has (it can be hard). I don’t know what his top-line numbers are in his best years, but you’re not hitting those same numbers that you used to hit. You’re not getting the same playing time. You’re not scoring as many goals. Does that mean that you’re horrible? No. I guess people will automatically look at your contract and have expectations where you should be, and so they should, but I think it’s just some people might adjust their own personal expectations a little quicker than others, and just accept the fact that ‘I’m not going to be that 40-goal guy, 22-minute a night guy, so what can I do.
Getting older is a mother trucker, ya know? Unfortunately, sports can be a cruel business. Regardless of his cap hit, the bright side is that Milan Lucic is playing in a way that is helping his team win right now and that’s all anyone in Edmonton really cares about at this point. Play as hard as you can to help your team win hockey games and the noise goes away. Lucic is doing that right now with his new linemates and you’d be hardpressed to find too many people that have a problem with it. Yes, I’ve complained about the cap hit too but nothing is going to change it at this juncture so the best we can do is play the cards we have.
My first reaction to this interview is that nothing Ference said was all that surprising to me. I mean, the guy was here during the Eakins era and we all know how bad the Oilers were at that time, so I wasn’t exactly expecting him to throw out a ringing endorsement. That said, Ference definitely threw some heat at some of his former teammates and the way this organization was run at the time. Without naming names, Ference dropped all kinds of hints about who he thought was the issue in his time here *cough* toe drag *cough* and I always think it’s interesting to get a look behind the curtain and see what’s going on. Even so, I do think it’s a little bit weird to be firing poisonous arrows at your former team years after you leave without taking even an ounce of responsibility for anything that happened.
The reality is that playing in Edmonton is no harder than it is in any other Canadian market, but the very obvious difference is that this team has lost more than any of them. That’s why it bothers me when former players take shots at the media or fans for being negative when all they want is a winning hockey team to watch instead of one that gets dummied on the regular. Do you really think it’s fun to write about bad games and complain about how things are going for 10 years of my life? It’s not. If anything, Oilers fans deserve all kinds of credit for sticking with an organization that gave them nothing to cheer about outside of the draft lottery. Rather than looking at how the team is covered, maybe we should look a little harder at how it was put together in the first place because if you think Habs fans or Leafs fans would quietly watch 10 years of brutal hockey without complaining then you’ve lost your mind. Then again, what the hell do I know?
What do you guys think? Do you care?