Andrew Ference is captain of the good ship Edmonton Oilers, but please, no jokes about Titanic or any other vessels that slowly, dispiritedly sank to the bottom. Under new coach Todd Nelson, the Oilers have just taken three of a possible four points, thanks to a 3-2 shootout victory over the Los Angeles Kings followed by a 4-3 overtime loss to the Calgary Flames this week.
Signs of modest progress were everywhere: Newcomers Derek Roy and Matt Fraser immediately hit the score sheet. More important, Nelson's presence appears to have breathed a little air into a dressing room where the players seemed to be gasping for breath.
Sometimes, the greatest coaching challenge with a slumping team – when all kinds of doubts have crept into their game – is to get them playing fearlessly again. During a stretch in which they won just once in 22 starts, the Oilers found all sorts of creative ways to lose games – blowing big leads against the likes of the Dallas Stars, getting edged in overtime with less than a second to go by the Arizona Coyotes. It is hard to win in the NHL these days by playing with any level of hesitation, because teams close in so fast. No time for thinking too much; the game needs to be played on instinct.
So to Ference, a Stanley Cup champion with Boston, the challenge for the Oilers, with little more than half a season to go and all the interest on whom they might land in the 2015 NHL draft, is to narrow the focus.
"You can complicate it, but at the end of the day, it's the most consistent teams that execute the details and play smart hockey that win," said Ference. "I mean, they cover up mistakes better than the other guys. Every team makes mistakes. It's the guys that sense that danger and cover up for their teammates consistently and create multiple layers to go through all the time that win. It's nothing fancy."
"The competition in this league is so high now. Defensive systems are so tight, and players are so consistent and responsible that even if you're pretty good at it, if you make five or 10 mistakes a game, there's your one-goal [loss] – because the other team is making only four to six mistakes," Ference said. "That's the way the league is, and you have to bring yourself up to that higher standard. It's just the way it is."
For many people, New Year's Day brings the opportunity to make resolutions and hope that, with the turn of a calendar, behaviour can be changed. People join health clubs, vow to be better, and maybe good intentions can carry you for a time.
But Ference isn't buying that.
"I kind of take the opposite approach," he said. "Time doesn't create anything. You can almost get into that cycle – you believe development happens the more pages you turn on the calendar, and that's development. It's not. It's practice. It's work. It's habits. It's doing all those little things in practice, off the ice, recovery. That's development. It's not the clock going around in circles.
"Maybe that helps you a little – thinking it's a clean slate – but that should be a day-in, day-out thing. Tomorrow you wake up. You won today, but so what? If you won or lost a game, you show up the next day and I shouldn't be able to tell. That's a good way of flipping the calendar – just getting on with it and having the same approach.
"That's where consistency comes from. That's what teams that win have learned in the playoffs – if they lose the first two games of a series, they show up for the third one and you wouldn't be able to tell. It's just, 'Boom! We're ready, we've done this a million times, we're not rattled.' And they're not too excited if they won the first two either."
On a roll, Ference wasn't about to stop.
"If there is a knock here, there was partly a sense of thinking time was development – and it hasn't been," he said. "You've seen the coaching rotation and a bit of the spinning of the wheels. Now, I think there is that firm understanding that it doesn't just happen.
"It takes individuals to take care of their own backyard and do everything they can on that checklist of what other people are doing around the league – whether that's nutrition, sleep, recovery, habits. Other people are doing it, and if you're not, you're behind – and you always will be until you decide it's important to do those things as well."