31 Thoughts: The Podcast has delivered some outstanding interviews, and Andrew Ference’s time with Elliotte Friedman and Jeff Marek produced some incredibly honest perspectives.
There was one lengthy section in particular on the Edmonton Oilers, with whom Ference spent time as a player, that will surely become a talking point.
“I wanted to ask you about Lucic,” said Friedman. “Look, nobody is going to feel badly for a guy who’s earning as much as he is, but I do feel badly because it’s not working. And I think anybody who has any pride - and he has a lot of pride - it hurts.
“Do you talk to him at all about how it’s going in Edmonton, because I do think that even though he obviously keeps it private, I do think he wanted to be traded last summer. I do think they tried.
“Do you talk to him at all to try to help him get through it.”
“Yeah,” replied Ference. “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 dialed-in culture and team and how it’s operating and you go to something different, it can be extremely frustrating.
“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 center of so much negativity. I don’t care who you are. Negativity gets to you, and it usually doesn’t help you at all.
“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.
“So I think for a guy like that, there’s where you have to maybe transition where your role on the ice isn’t so important, but your role off the ice and in the room and as a leader - you have to magnify that yourself and really make yourself important in those ways as well.”
Lucic is in the third season of a seven-year, $42 million contract, which carries a $6 million cap hit and a no-move clause.
The veteran winger has one goal and five assists in 30 starts this season.
Marek picked up the Lucic thread from there.
“Is it a feeling almost of like getting caught or getting trapped,” wondered Marek. “Where everything around you - I mean, this game changed fast. This game changed quickly. Do you think he has the feeling that maybe he got caught. That he’s the same player - ‘Hey, this worked not that long ago. Why isn’t it working now.’
“That to me has to be one of the most frustrating feelings - not just in sports - but in life. Because you didn’t change. Everything around you did.”
“Well, everything is changing yes,” conceded Ference. “But there’s probably not too many defensemen that still like playing against him, him on the forecheck when he’s all rambunctious and running around. He’s not a fun player to play against.
“It’s just that when you’ve had really successful seasons like he has - 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.’
“If you don’t adjust that quick enough - yeah, I mean the frustration will be never-ending.”
“You mentioned it, frustrations about going back to Edmonton,” said Friedman. “I remember a game on Hockey Night where you were the After Hours guest with Scott Oake. Edmonton got pummelled that night.”
“Surprise,” laughed Ference.
“Well, no, but the thing is we remember watching the game on-air and saying, ‘Scott’s not going to get the guest. There’s no way Andrew Ference is going to be on the set after this. He’s going to have to scramble and fill 30 minutes,’” recalled Friedman. “And you showed up, which was great. But you were really hard on them. You lit up the group. And you’ve talked about that and I don’t think anybody watching that game would have had a problem with it.
“But what you just said a couple of seconds ago - I think there’s a lot of Oilers fans out there wondering why doesn’t it work. They’ve had a lot of great talent in there. Is there something there in the water of Edmonton that contributes to all of this. Why do you think they’ve had so much trouble.”
“I don’t think it’s one thing,” considered Ference. “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.”
“I’ve heard that theory before,” noted Friedman.
“You take less risks,” continued Ference. “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.’
“It’s not just for those guys, but it’s for other guys on the team and you’re looking at and saying, ‘Well, they don’t have his back. Are they going to have mine when it’s my turn to be the whipping boy?’
“But I think the most frustrating part for me as a player, like I said, when I went in there straight Boston was that 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 3, 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. The lifestyle was way more important than playing the game and making the playoffs. But like I said, talk is cheap.
“Even in practice, you came from a group where you’re practicing against guys like Bergeon or Chara and you’re going at each other - 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.
“So how do you break that. Well, you come in and try to disrupt. I think that over the years there have been attempts to try to disrupt, whether it was Eakins or I come in there or Pronger - whoever it was, different people come in and disrupt.
“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 No. 4 or 5 defenseman. 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. So it was not only frustrating, but it really pissed me off because it was a waste of years in your NHL career, where it’s just you never get those back.
“And you see a coach like Dallas get really just I think so unfairly treated. Like I said, was he perfect? No. He’d be the first to admit that he’d rather do some things different. But taking the blame for - what are you supposed to do with a culture like that.”
Marek wanted to touch on one more Oilers-related point with Ference.
“I always felt that - and I agree with you on that about Dallas because I think he’s a really good coach,” said Marek. “I would watch games and then read the reviews of them. You played, you can tell me whether I’m off-base or on-base with this one.
“I think it was after Game 7 or maybe Game 8 that one year, you guys had the Western road swing to start down in California and it was a tough one for you. This is when you started that swarm defense. It didn’t work, and I think Dallas abandoned it after about Game 7 or 8.
“But then it would get into like Game 12 or 15 or 20 and I would read about how, ‘Oh, this swarm defense has to stop in Edmonton.’
“I’m like, ‘Is anyone actually watching the game? They abandoned this games and games ago.’
“From your point of view as a player on that team - how frustrating is it to play, read the commentary afterward, and say, ‘That’s not even close to what we’re doing.’”
“Well, because it becomes an easy narrative,” said Ference.
“That never happened on TV,” deadpanned Friedman, interjecting some humor in the moment, to laughter from Marek and Ference. “I’d just like to state that for the record. Purely print and radio.”
“And I hate to rag on media. You don’t want to rag on media,” said Ference. “We were a bad team. We lost a lot of games. We got scored on a ton. But there is a narrative where it’s just easier 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 and rag on it, and I’m sure the people that call into the show will just have lots to talk about. It makes it easy. Easy way to talk about a crappy situation.
“Like I said, you could have had any kind of defense or any kind of system. But if you go on a Western swing and your guys are out every single night until 5 in the morning, I mean, you’re not going to win too many games.”
Contract-related info via CapFriendly