01/18/2008 12:02 AM
You won’t find veteran defenseman Brad Ference backing down from a challenge.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Video may have killed the radio star, but it hasn’t hurt the notoriety of hockey players who are willing to drop their gloves.
Just ask Brad Ference.
A search of YouTube uncovers several appearances by the lanky defenseman, whose pleasant demeanor away from the rink belies his rough-and-tumble style on the ice.
You can find Ference, as a member of the Phoenix Coyotes, going toe-to-toe with Jordin Tootoo of the Nashville Predators and tussling with Tyler Bouck of the Vancouver Canucks for a good minute.
Both are vintage Ference, a scrappy blueliner who is willing to take a punch and stand up for himself or his teammates against just about anyone.
Even Mario Lemieux.
Super Mario, the NHL scoring legend, was never known as a fighter, but you can watch the video of the Pittsburgh Penguins star chasing down the future Griffin when Ference played for the Florida Panthers.
Ference grins at the memory. “We were beating the Penguins pretty good that night and I ended up getting into a little bit of a tiff with him,” he said.
“This was around the time when there was talk of them selling the Penguins, so I think he was pretty frustrated. I didn’t want to fight Mario Lemieux – I had too much respect for him as a player – and I don’t think he really wanted to fight me either.
“I think he bear-swatted me a couple of times and that was about it.”
Equally interesting is his amusing altercation with Brad Isbister of the New York Islanders.
“He hit me from behind, so I got up and decked him,” Ference recalled. “When we went into the (penalty) box, it became a little bit of a water bottle fight.”
The fact that Ference’s fisticuffs are not limited to a video or two suggests that he may have done this more than a few times.
Thirty-nine times, to be exact, in his first year of junior hockey alone, when he piled up 324 penalty minutes in 67 games. All he was doing was trying to make a name for himself.
“I was trying to establish myself and make an impression on the scouts to get drafted,” he said. “All that fighting isn’t going to happen these days, but I still end up getting into my 10 tussles a year.”
Never one to turn the other cheek, Ference is more careful about picking his spots now, although his sandpaper-style play still has a way of rubbing opposing players the wrong way.
“I guess you could say I have a little bit of edge, which can be a good thing and a bad thing since you can get caught being stereotyped as that type of player,” he said.
Ference is the prototypical stay-at-home defenseman. He didn’t register his first point until his 22nd game this season and didn’t have a goal until his 29th. He is more focused on preventing the opposition from putting the puck into the net than scoring himself.
But you don’t play 250 games in the NHL like Ference if you’re strictly one-dimensional. “At this level, I’m a pretty versatile player,” he said. “I can play on the power play, penalty kill or even 4-on-4.”
Ference spent most of last season in the AHL with Omaha, although he did appear in five NHL games with Calgary. Despite seeing only limited NHL action in 2006-07, he was interested in re-signing with the Flames.
True to his playing style, Ference wanted to stay at home.
Calgary is home for both Ference and his wife, Kristin, who were wed on July 28. “Both of our families are there, only about five minutes away,” said Ference, whose father-in-law, Rick Skaggs, was director of public relations for the Flames back when Calgary won the Stanley Cup in 1989.
Brad and Kristin met during the NHL lockout of the aborted 2004-05 season. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, so I stuck around home a little longer than most,” he said.
By the time he decided to play overseas, a lot of the open spots in the top European leagues were taken, so he played for Morzine-Avoriaz in France, about an hour from Geneva, Switzerland. “I wanted to play in Germany but it was full to the gills, so I ended up going to a little ski town in the middle of the French Alps.”
“It was a great life experience,” he said. “I got to see a different culture and different places and because the league was small, so they gave me a lot of respect.
“There were free meals here and there, and they treated me absolutely great, which was nice, especially being in a country where I had no idea what to expect. For a few minutes, you actually feel like you’re being treated like Wayne Gretzky.”
Most people have no idea what life as Gretzky might be like, but Ference has actually been to his house.
He trained in Los Angeles during his first couple of seasons in the NHL and got to skate with Gretzky a few times. When Ference was traded to Phoenix (where Gretzky was a managing partner), the Great One invited him to come over.
“He said he was having a barbecue at his place near Malibu. It’s right on Sherwood Country Club and he has his golf carts and tennis courts. It was really cool. It’s nice to see that lifestyle.”
Ference was originally drafted by Vancouver but in 1999 he and Bret Hedican were included in the Pavel Bure trade with Florida for Ed Jovanovski, Dave Gagner, Mike Brown, Kevin Weekes and the Panthers’ first round choice in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft.
He played two full seasons and parts of two others in Florida. “It was great – the warm weather certainly helps – and I met a lot of good people and made a lot of friends.”
Going to Phoenix meant another stay in a warm climate, but another trade after his return from France ended streak of good weather. He started the 2005-06 season in San Antonio (still warm), but was traded to New Jersey and finished the year in Albany.
The temperature wasn’t much better last season in Omaha.
“My run of warm-weather cities, I think, is up,” said Ference, admitting that his career has come “full circle,” having spent most of his first two professional seasons in the AHL with Louisville.
While he admittedly would prefer to be playing in the NHL, Ference isn’t going to complain. “I’ve seen a lot of guys who get sent down and then have a bad attitude. I think they’re usually gone pretty quick,” he said.
As far as Ference is concerned, he’s getting paid to play a game that he loves and he’s going to make the most of it.
“You have to make that adjustment and focus on the present and what you can do to make yourself and the team better,” he said. “You’ve got to turn it into a positive.”
After a bit of a slow start this season, Ference found his groove and was playing well until an injury sidelined him in late December. Anxious to get back on the ice, he was looking forward to providing veteran leadership the rest of the season.
“I want to be a good guy to the young players,” he said. “It’s not always what you say, but how you lead the way with your work ethic and stuff like that.
“I always say you’re going to be the happiest where hockey is going well,” he said. “Being in the Wings’ organization just makes things that much better.”
Ference played nearly five years in the NHL without a demotion, so he’d obviously welcome getting a chance to play at the game’s highest level again. He doesn’t worry about making the jump.
“The first couple of games might be a bit nerve-wracking, but playing parts of seven seasons up there obviously makes the transition that much easier,” he said. “The key is to keep it simple.”
Even if the opportunity doesn’t come, Ference is pleased to be in the AHL.
“I like being in the Western Conference because I don’t like bussing for two hours and then playing the same day, which is what happens a lot in the East,” he said. “I’d rather travel the night before the game and get a good night’s sleep.”
Being in the Western Conference does mean more extended trips, but that’s not a problem as far as Ference is concerned. “As long as you can get your proper pregame nap and meals, it’s a big advantage.”
Ference enjoyed playing last season in Omaha, despite the impression some people have that it is in the middle of nowhere. “Most people would say ‘Jeez, Omaha, Nebraska?’ but they’ve probably never been there. I thought it was a great city. I met a lot of people I’ll remain in contact with for a long time.”
Eventually, Ference will settle back home in Calgary, where he owns two condos in the area. He hopes to become a real estate developer after his playing days are over.
“It’s something I would like to do, but it’s like anything else,” he said. “You have to work to establish yourself.”