On Monday, just a day after the National Hockey League lockout concluded, Andrew Ference was an NHL player again. The Bruins defenseman and seven teammates hit the ice at Boston University’s Agganis Arena to begin the process of regaining their touch and rhythm in preparation for training camp.
Just four days earlier, Ference worried about whether a season would take place at all. Ference and nine other NHL players were at New York’s Sofitel Hotel. Earlier that Thursday, negotiations took place two blocks away at the NHL’s midtown headquarters on Sixth Avenue. They did not go well.
With just over a week remaining of wiggle room — the NHL had declared it would cancel the season on Jan. 11 if no collective bargaining agreement was in place — the sides remained far apart. Their disagreements included the length of the CBA, the salary cap for 2013-14, and term limits on player contracts. The players were especially angry about an alteration in penalties for teams guilty of violating hockey-related revenue reporting.
The day before, the NHL Players Association had let a critical deadline lapse. The players had authorized the NHLPA’s executive board to file a disclaimer of interest on Wednesday. The disclaimer would have disbanded the union and allowed the players to file antitrust lawsuits against the owners. At the least, such a maneuver would have placed a chill on negotiations. At the most, it would have placed the season at risk.
The union, believing an agreement was close, elected not to file the disclaimer. But after Thursday’s wrangling, the players initiated another vote to reactivate the disclaimer.
“When it was teetering there, I think there were people on both sides that were ready to blow the whole thing up,” said Ference. “It was pretty scary there to think of when you think long term of what that would actually mean to everybody. It was pretty intense.”
In contrast, when the NHL and NHLPA agreed to a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement early on Sunday morning, Ference understood the gravity of the handshakes.
“When it finally got completed, and everybody double-checked about four times to make sure everybody said yes to it, it was just complete satisfaction, at least from our side,” Ference said. “We feel like we did the best possible job we could for the guys that are going to play under this system. But also the best possible deal without completely destroying the sport. That’s the balance we all had to play.”
On Monday, Ference and teammates Gregory Campbell, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, Adam McQuaid, Tuukka Rask, Tyler Seguin, and Shawn Thornton hit the ice. The NHL has yet to announce dates for the start of camp or the regular season. The season most likely will start Jan. 19.
Yet for Ference, his role as union activist might ultimately trump his actions as a player. In 2004-05, Ference experienced his first lockout. On Aug. 31, 2009, after participating in an investigation of NHLPA affairs, Ference played a major part in the firing of then-executive director Paul Kelly.
Most recently, Ference and other players (Chris Campoli, Mathieu Darche, Shane Doan, Ron Hainsey, Jamal Mayers, George Parros, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis, and Kevin Westgarth) negotiated alongside executive director Donald Fehr and special counsel Steve Fehr.
In October, Ference was quick to sign with Ceske Budejovice of the Czech Extraliga, wanting to keep his skills sharp in game play. Ference appeared in 21 games for the Czech club, with two goals and five assists.
Ference played his final Czech game in late December and returned to Boston, where he, wife Krista, and daughters Ava and Stella live in the North End. Ference then traveled to New York to join the bargaining sessions.
Last Thursday and Friday, both sides met separately with Scot Beckenbaugh, deputy director of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. On Saturday, the NHL and NHLPA met at the Sofitel Hotel.
Shortly before midnight, Ference recalled, talks accelerated. The exchanges of proposals and counterproposals quickened. Positive answers returned.
When the agreement was in place, Ference e-mailed the good news to several teammates. Ference then posted a thumbs-up emoticon on his Twitter account. Ference did not think any explanatory text was necessary.
“When you really, really hope for something to work out and you put the effort into it, when it does work out, it’s a tremendous feeling of relief,” Ference said.
On the ice, Ference has been a valuable Black-and-Gold blue-line contributor. The 33-year-old is an alternate captain. Ference is most effective on the third defensive pairing. But Ference’s experience, mobility, and hockey sense make him a valuable contributor when his coaches ask him to play an expanded role. In 72 games last year, Ference had six goals and 18 assists while averaging 18:53 of ice time.
But Ference made his presence known leaguewide off the ice in 2009. By leading the charge to dismiss Kelly, Ference helped to initiate the process that led to the hiring of Donald Fehr in December of 2010.
Had Kelly remained in charge, Ference acknowledged the lockout would have ended earlier. An agreement, however, would have come at a cost to the players.
“We’d be playing. For sure,” Ference said. “I’m sure we wouldn’t have missed as much hockey. I think the league would have been salivating.”
Instead, the players turned to Fehr. The players have forfeited nearly three months worth of salary because of the lockout. But they believe that Fehr’s insistence on unity — the yet-to-be-ratified agreement makes the NHL’s initial proposal look like an April Fool’s joke — resulted in concessions to counter the loss of paychecks.
Ference has played under five executive directors: Fehr, Kelly, Ian Penny, Bob Goodenow, and Ted Saskin. Under Fehr’s leadership, Ference believes the NHLPA’s turbulent times are over.
“It’s really impressive to see that transformation going all the way back to the last lockout,” Ference said. “Seeing different people come in, take over the helm, and seemingly time after time being disappointed. Things happening and issues arising with each and every one of them — issues that yanked the union apart. To finally have some stability, to have some real leadership, and to have a guy that can come in and do a really time-crunched job of getting to know everybody and unifying everybody in a really tough situation is awesome.”