BOSTON, MA - When Andrew Ference was traded to the Boston Bruins from the Calgary Flames on February 10, 2007, the team in the spoked-B had a much different make-up than its 2013 form.
"I don’t know a whole lot about style of play. But who doesn’t know about the history and the great pride of the fans?" Ference had said, upon joining the storied franchise in 2007. "It definitely softens the blow by coming to a city so rich in sports history. This is a team that is scratching and clawing its way back up to have some respect in this city."
The team had not made the playoffs since 2004.
In the 2007-08 offseason, Claude Julien was hired as Head Coach by General Manager Peter Chiarelli. The Bruins would then start their rebuilding journey by making the playoffs in 2008, and never looking back, enduring three straight Game 7 elimination losses before climbing all the way to the top in 2011. They had a new identity, and a new place in the city.
There were so many moving parts throughout those years, but Ference soon grew into a staple on the Boston blueline. He grew to love his new team, his new hometown.
Seven seasons with one team? A Stanley Cup? With nearly the same core group? And the same Coach? It hardly sounds like the norm in the NHL - or any professional sports league, for that matter.
So, when the 2013 run to the Cup - with almost the exact group from 2011 - ended, it seemed so abrupt. It wasn't how it was supposed to be.
Ference was especially emotional.
"When you have a group of guys after the worst loss that you can imagine you can still look at your guys and know that they gave everything - that’s the thing, there’s no consolation in losing, but you can still be proud of the effort that you put in and not have regrets with not putting anything more into it," the defenseman had remarked following the Game 6 loss to Chicago.
When the team gathered for 'break-up day' on Wednesday at TD Garden, Ference told reporters that he would not be returning to the Bruins for the 2013-14 season.
"With the current cap, Peter isn’t going to be able to keep me," he had said, likely speaking to them in the Bruins' dressing room for one of the last times. "So you know, he’s got to re-sign Tuukka, and obviously do his side of the business. Also, unfortunately with the new CBA, he’s restricted. He said ‘wish it wasn’t so,’ but that’s the way it is."
"Obviously throughout the year you prepare yourself I guess for not being here. You hope that things can work out, but I think myself and my family are quite prepared for it," added the blueliner. "Doesn’t make it any easier."
"I think obviously with the team that we’ve had the last few years, I mean, I’ve been around the sport long enough to know that six straight years of playoffs and to do it with a bunch of guys that get along with a coach that we’ve been able to work with for as long as we have – it’s been an absolute blessing."
"So the hockey side of it is about as good as you can get anywhere in the entire league over the last few years. When you pile on the fact that we’ve been able to live in this city, and we have no greater friends in the world than the ones that we made here. "
It's been rare, to say the least, in the salary-cap era, that a team such as the Bruins, who recently won a Stanley Cup, have been able to retain so many players from a playoff-caliber, championship team, Ference included.
"I’ve got to say, one of the most underrated things is the fact that this team has made the playoffs several years in a row," he said. "It’s very, very difficult to do. Whether it’s through adversity, or injuries or hot streaks or cold streaks, but for that length of time I think the guys are very, very proud of that."
Both on and off the ice in the spoked-B and being a Bostonian, Ference will certainly leave his own legacy. And he can take pride in the fact that he helped rebuild the Bruins' identity, to set them up for many years to come.
"I spoke with [Andrew] and told him that we wouldn’t be re-signing him and we kind of rehashed our history with the Bruins," General Manager Peter Chiarelli told media, of what he said was a tough conversation to have. "If you can recall, we brought him in my first year. He’s been part of this, what we’ve built here. The warrior-type of attitude and playing style for his size - the leadership."
"He’s been through seven years, basically, and you can’t say enough about his leadership and what he’s brought to our organization."
Coach Julien was sitting next to Chiarelli during their press conference, and having been with Ference for the past six seasons, rehashed his own history with the defenseman who wore the 'A.'
"There’s no doubt, I think both of us are sitting here knowing that because of [the lower cap] we’re losing not just a good player, but also a leader in the dressing room and everything else," said Julien. "He’s always gone above and beyond with the little things in the dressing room and everything that comes with it. He’s been a good teammate, smart."
"He’s really respected by his teammates, but at the same time, these are the toughest things. I can’t speak for Peter, but I’m going to speak for myself, as a coach, as much as you like players and as much as you respect them, sometimes it’s not about the emotions, it’s more about the business side of it that creates those situations."
"Knowing Andrew and not having talked to him about that, because Peter did, he’s professional enough and smart enough to understand the situation. Do we lose a good player? Absolutely. But as we always do as an organization, we’re going to go and gain a player that will – and as you saw in the playoffs - there’s some young guys here that have done a good job that can step in."
"That’s never easy," said veteran center Chris Kelly, upon learning of Ference's situation. "We’ve become a very close group here. In professional sports, it’s a rare thing to have the same group back and I think Peter has done a great job of keeping as many guys back as he can."
"Whoever doesn’t come back, I know will do great wherever they go because they’re great people. We’re very fortunate to have great people in this locker room and that’s the reason we’ve had success."
With the business of hockey, it's still never easy to see a player move on. But, just as that happens, it always opens up the possibility for players to step up and be challenged, like the young 'D' on the B's roster in Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton or Matt Bartkowski (to focus on those who stepped up in the postseason when Ference was injured). It also allows the opportunity for growing leaders on the Bruins roster to take on a larger role in the dressing room and on the ice.
"It’s just part of the business. It is what it is, it just hockey. People are going to come and go, you’re not going to have the exact same team every year," said Ference's longtime defense partner, Johnny Boychuk. "You’re going to have guys coming, guys going, it’s just the reality of what it is. "
"There’s going to be guys that have to try to step up and fill what he’s been doing the last couple years," added Boychuk. "He’s a great guy and I wish him the best because he’s been part of this team. And you’ll never forget a guy like that."
"It’s not easy, but that’s life," said Ference. "At the end of the day, if I’m playing, it’s tough to complain. I dreamed to playing in the NHL and I’m so fortunate to do that no matter where you are."
While Ference's journey in Boston coming to an end, he's leaving behind a well-established, hard-nosed, championship-caliber team that will continue carrying on what he helped build.
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