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Hockey Oilers captain Andrew Ference keeps putting community, fitness first

The 2014 winner of the NHL’s King Clancy Memorial Trophy for community leadership and humanitarian contributions, Edmonton Oilers captain Andrew Ference works to bring attention to the matters he is passionate about: the environment, human rights and physical fitness.

Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

The flags atop Commonwealth Stadium ripple in the breeze on a cool summer morning. Below, several hundred people exchange greetings in the twilight before dawn.

Some arrive by bicycle in skin-tight Lycra. Others are dressed in sloppy sweats and huff and puff after the short walk across the parking lot. They are strangers now, but not for long.

A buff 36-year-old in a T-shirt and shorts stands at the front. A hockey star in a hockey town, defenceman Andrew Ference has been the captain of the Edmonton Oilers since joining them as a free agent in 2013. Unusual for a professional athlete, he works to bring attention to the matters he is passionate about: the environment, human rights and physical fitness.

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Upon arriving in Edmonton, he began staging free workout sessions and invited everyone to come. They happen three mornings a week, with Wednesday reserved for running stairs at the home stadium of the Canadian Football League's Eskimos.

This week, Mr. Ference begins by instructing everyone to find someone they don't know and give them a hug. Someone's sweet-tempered pit bull runs among them, wagging and barking in a studded collar and an Oilers kerchief.

A few minutes later, as the sky brightens, the group files into the empty stadium and bounds up the stairs.

Those waiting at the back of the line exercise their legs by bouncing up and down.

"It's a great morning," says Mr. Ference's sister Jen, who helps organize the free gatherings with her hockey-playing younger brother. It is not quite 6 a.m. and she is cheerful.

"There is great energy here," she says. "So many people want to get up early."

As a teenager, Mr. Ference used to travel into Edmonton from the suburbs to run the stadium's stairs with his friends one day a week.

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"Running stairs is the most awful workout there is," Mr. Ference, a veteran of 17 NHL seasons, says. "You get faster at it, but it never gets easier."

It was while playing for the Boston Bruins in 2011 that Mr. Ference met a couple of fellows who were starting a free fitness movement there, designed to help people keep in shape during winter. He joined them in running the steps at Harvard Stadium, and then brought the so-called November Project with him to Edmonton.

There are chapters now in 22 North American cities, Calgary, Vancouver and Winnipeg among them. Mr. Ference also does occasional pop-ups in other places; this spring, during a visit to Paris, he led a group hill run near the Eiffel Tower.

On three mornings a week, hundreds of people of all ages, shapes and sizes show up for the fitness sessions in Edmonton. Exercise buffs push themselves hard, and sofa spuds plod along gamely. It's ambitious and challenging for varying fitness levels.

"Everyone takes something different away from it," Mr. Ference says. "It pushes people outside their comfort zone in a few ways."

Running stairs is one; hauling one's butt out of bed before the birds are chirping is another. So is meeting someone and hugging them seconds later. "It makes people human again," Mr. Ference says. "It takes their face out of their cellphone."

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The 2014 winner of the NHL's King Clancy Memorial Trophy for community leadership and humanitarian contributions, Mr. Ference has used his profile as a platform to promote a number of causes. The summer before last, he marched in the city's Pride Parade with his wife and two young daughters. And last spring he and his family attended hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to listen to aboriginal elders talk about abuse suffered in residential schools.

He also has served as a mentor to underprivileged inner-city youths, counselled gay and lesbian teenagers and addressed elementary school children about composting and the environment. "These are human-rights issues and equality issues," Mr. Ference says. "It's bigger than sports."

When he rolled out the November Project in Edmonton, Mr. Ference held the first workout on the grounds of the provincial legislature. Now, on any given morning, his tribe can be found running hills in parks, climbing walkways along the edge of the North Saskatchewan River or frolicking like a bunch of overgrown kids on playground equipment.

One night next week, the group plans to convene in a massive corn maze on a farm outside the city. After racing through five kilometres of twists and turns, they will gather around a campfire.

"I love the community feel of what we do," says Jen Ference, a teacher and innovative learning consultant. "We bring people together who otherwise would never meet. We hold each other accountable amid smiles, laughter and joy. It becomes contagious."

Early Wednesday, Ms. Ference joins her brother in leading runners up and down narrow aisles of stairs at Commonwealth Stadium. There are two steps to each row of seats, 45 rows in each column, and dozens of columns around the lower and upper decks.

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Mr. Ference sprints up the stairs, but he slows down to chat with everyone he passes. If he finds it strenuous, it doesn't show.

"You have quick feet," he tells 10-year-old Jaiya Sumaru and her sister, Lehla, 7. "Adults come for the first time and they are really slow, but you guys are fast."

The girls woke up at 5 a.m. to join their mom, Sunita, in running the stairs for the first time.

"Friends have been hyping it to me, but it took a while to build up enough courage to come," Sunita says. "I'm not sure if it was running the stairs that scared me, or the early hour."

As they finish, runners take a seat in the upper deck, and cheer on stragglers. Then Mr. Ference gives a hat away as a prize, and addresses the crowd. He reminds them that the YEG Dead Legs race is on Saturday; he started the 25-kilometre cycling, running and stair-climbing race last year. During it, participants carry their bikes up and down 17 flights of stairs that climb up from the North Saskatchewan River.

"I came up with the idea last year while I was riding my bike in the river valley," Mr. Ference says. "Sometimes the fastest way is taking your bike up the stairs instead of pedalling the long way around. I thought people might find it fun."

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On Saturday, 100 to 125 cyclists are expected to join him.

"There is no catch," he says. "All people have to do is come out."

On his way out of the stadium, Mr. Ference stops to talk to some of the runners. It is nearly 7 a.m., and most are headed for home for a shower, and then to work.

Then they leave, after a few high-fives and sweaty hugs.

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