EDMONTON, AB - As the team bus pulled into Rexall Place on Wednesday afternoon, and the Bruins started unloading their hockey bags from the equipment truck, they were greeted by a familiar face.
Andrew Ference, former longtime Bruin and current Oilers captain, clad in his blue and orange workout gear, gave a succession of hugs to his close friends. The reunion brought out smiles from the group and huddles of conversations catching up.
"It was great. Obviously looking forward to the guys coming in," Ference said on Thursday morning. "Got to see them quickly at the rink and caught up for a bit yesterday and reminisce a little bit, get caught up in what’s going on with everybody’s lives."
"Just a good group of buddies coming in for a visit, and then today, we have to go to work."
There is, of course, a game to be played on Thursday night in Edmonton, with Ference on the opposing side.
But the occasion also offers an opportunity to reflect on why the reunion between him and his teammates was such an easy, heartfelt one.
Through Ference's seven seasons in Black & Gold, he was there for the rebuild, from the beginning with General Manager Peter Chiarelli in 2007, to the Cup and two Final appearances. The lower cap prevented a re-signing in the 2013 offseason for the unrestricted free agent, but it was a respectful, classy departure for the defenseman.
"We kind of rehashed our history with the Bruins," Chiarelli had said, back in June, when news broke out that Ference would be moving on. "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."
Now, as The Captain in Edmonton, Ference hopes he can be a part of the same trajectory.
"Everybody starts somewhere and that’s the thing with Boston. Everybody has such short memories when it comes to stuff like that. Because when you think Boston, they are a Cup contender but we’re not too far removed from them having not a full building, nobody wearing their jerseys and hats around Boston," said Ference.
"They were an afterthought in the sports world in Boston. We earned respect there and we earned fans and eventually, obviously we earned the Cup and a bunch of wins by just really committing to a certain style of play and a certain attitude."
In a "reunion week" for the Bruins, we've seen Ference's former Flames teammate and friend, Jarome Iginla, get his special, well-deserved night in Calgary, before returning to his hometown of Edmonton.
For Ference, signing with his hometown team in the Oilers in the offseason was, in a way, his own homecoming.
He'll certainly get a reception back in Boston from fans when Edmonton heads to TD Garden in February, but this visit from the Bruins offered a chance for Ference's own reunion with his former teammates, without the amount of attention that will surround him then.
"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," Ference had said back in Boston in June.
The feeling has always been mutual.
"Absolutely, he was with us for a long time and I’ve been his partner for a while as well and it was just nice to see him," said Johnny Boychuk.
"Andy was such a good individual and player for us," said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien, with Ference for all of his years in Boston. "I know he’s a captain here, I always felt he had the personality and demeanor to be a real good leader."
"Zee really relied on him quite a bit. Everything he’s done, from how hard he played and what he put on the ice, to what he did in the community, to also what he and his family did."
"I’m just glad he’s had an opportunity to come back home. I’m glad that he’s still playing the game as a captain of a hockey team which I think is very deserving of that just because of who he is and what he’s done."
I remember back to when Ference was named captain in September, and some of the Bruins had not yet heard the news.
There was a small gathering of reporters around Patrice Bergeron, when he was informed of the captaincy. "Really?!" was his response, with a smile, and a genuine happiness for his friend.
"Well, I had no shortage of lessons from the leadership group there and how to incorporate some of those same messages in this room," said Ference, of his new role, on his new team.
"It’s obviously challenging when you’re losing a bit like we have at the start of the year, but it’s getting better and I think we’re moving in the right direction. It’s neat, being home and being around family and familiar surroundings and having a little bit of extra responsibility within the community is right up my alley."
"So I’m having fun with it and hopefully taking this team in the right direction."
While the results on the ice weren't there from the start, you can tell that he's embracing the challenge. And the off-ice results? He's made an immediate impact.
Taking a cue from the Bruins' Holiday Toy Shopping event that's been around since the Ray Bourque days, Ference started a new tradition for the Oilers this season, with their own toy donations.
When the puck drops on Thursday night, though, the pleasantries and reunions will be put aside.
"It’ll be different. Obviously six years playing with him and you can battle and practice as much as you want but it’s definitely not the same as a game," smiled Milan Lucic, who has never been on Ference's opposing team.
"Obviously, you know he’s going to be fired up to play against us. Obviously he’s come here and done a good job as a captain so far and we’re excited to finally compete against one another, because we know he’s a competitor and we don’t expect anything other than that."
Most teams say that there are no surprises when it comes to the Bruins and what you're going to face.
Ference does have a piece of advice for his teammates, though.
"Not fighting Chara, that’s my advice to most people," he laughed, on his team's mindset heading into the matchup.
"I think it’s a group that I think has not a whole lot of secrets; everybody’s watched the playoff games or watched Boston over the last few years and it’s no secret that if you don’t show up and you’re not ready for a tough game, you’re going to get kind of rolled over. "
"Just basically, the message is be ready for the challenge. I think that’s why a lot of people use the Bruins as a measuring stick, is because you get to see what kind of character individuals on your team have, if they’re ready for a tough game or if they shrink into the corner."
"So I think it’s, like I said, a great test and a simple message of: 'make sure you show up.'"
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