Deja vu for Andrew Ference
By the time the victorious HC Ceske Budejovice team bus rolled into the town square after the last game of the 2004-05 season, the celebration was in full swing.
Never mind waiting for a proper parade, the victory had elevated the team into the Czech elite league, and it was time to party.
Among the players who took part in that seminal win was young defenseman Andrew Ference.
Fresh off a trip to the Stanley Cup finals with the Calgary Flames in the spring of 2004, Ference waited until the end of November before making a decision about his season.
His former teammate Roman Turek sold him on the adventure of playing in the Czech Republic and specifically in Ceske Budejovice, even though it was a league below the high-profile Czech elite league. Ference signed with the team on Dec. 1.
"As much as you hated to miss a season, it was a great experience," Ference told ESPN.com this week. "Sort of making the best of a bad situation."
As though to reconfirm the notion that life isn't necessarily a straight line from A to B, but rather sometimes a series of connected circles, Ference is once again headed back to the historic city along the shores of the Vltava River, home to the original Budvar, or Budweiser beer.
The journey back to Ceske Budejovice will in some ways be familiar -- a significant attraction for Ference in making his lockout decision -- while at the same time offering the adventurous Edmonton native something unique.
But that is the nature of time, no? Even the familiar is different with each passing day or year.
Turek, for instance, is now retired but is a goaltending instructor with Ceske Budejovice.
And in spite of the passage of time, Ference will once again be making the journey on his own.
Seven years ago, Ference's wife, Krista, was pregnant with their first child. Now there are two Ference daughters -- Ava, 7, and Stella, 3.
As then, no one knows how long this lockout will last. No one knows when, or if, the call will come to return home and put on an NHL jersey again, so Ference and his wife decided it best he head across the ocean himself.
"They're at the age if I have to do something for my hockey career, I don't want to throw their lives completely out of balance," Ference said of his daughters. "We've got life going on here [in Boston]."
There are Skype and video chats and other ways to make the separation more bearable than last time, of course. And with natural breaks in the Czech schedule, Ference and his family will be able to reconnect at regular intervals, even if the lockout rolls on interminably.
"It's like a couple of really long road trips," Ference said. "That's how we're looking at it."
There is also perspective, too.
Ference and his family are deeply involved in various charities and causes. He is proactive on the eco front and was the subject of a National Geographic series. His contact with local military families has also been a window into a world where families spend time apart that puts his own situation into perspective.
"You see the different hardships that people go through and it doesn't make your situation look so bad," he said.
He could have stayed at home in Boston, of course.
Ference was working out with some of his Boston Bruins teammates at Boston University as late as Friday morning. But many of his teammates have either already boarded jets to head to Europe or will in the near future. Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, Tyler Seguin and David Krejci are among those who have committed to teams across Europe.
Despite the obvious hardships, Ference said the decision wasn't all that difficult.
For players with long-term deals, they might have more wiggle room in terms of being able to ease back into NHL game shape. They can afford, perhaps, to take more time to get back into a groove whenever that groove is required.
But if you're in the final year of your deal and trying to preserve an NHL future, you can't count on just stepping back into form.
Ference is entering the final year of his contract with the Bruins. He is 33 years old.
He recalls the difficulty those players who didn't play competitive hockey during the last lockout faced when the NHL returned in 2005-06. Ference needs to play and stay sharp and hope that whenever NHL hockey returns, he is ready to hit the ground, or ice, running -- ready to impress enough people that his NHL journey, one that began in 1999 with the Pittsburgh Penguins, can and should continue beyond the end of this contract.
It's certainly not the money that will see Ference board a red-eye flight out of Boston on Saturday night.
To protect the final year of his deal, one that would pay him $1.4 million after taxes, Ference's insurance costs are $7,500 a month. Throw in equipment, including sticks he will bring with him to the Czech Republic, and everyday living costs and it's pretty much a wash financially. Depending on how much Czech crystal and other souvenirs he ends up buying for family and friends, he might end up in a deficit position.
"I'll end up paying a little bit to play," he said.
Still, there is more than a little excitement at returning to the ice as part of a team, leaving behind the desultory discussion of a labor dispute that threatens once again to scuttle an entire NHL season.
The familiarity of returning to something that is both foreign yet familiar was enticing, Ference said.
"Knowing you can go somewhere and just jump in and play the game," he said.
You know where to go, where things are, how to get around, you know some of the people.
Also, there was a sense of loyalty to the team and the community.
Ceske Budejovice gave Ference a chance to play, and now that there's another opportunity, it seemed right to return.
The experience, of course, is different than in NHL rinks.
There is the music section in the stands. Sometimes someone will set off smoke bombs, Ference said.
"It's a completely different experience, and it's awesome," he said.
Ference actually returned to the Czech Republic in the fall of 2010 as part of the NHL's Premier Games. When the Bruins played an exhibition game in Liberec, a number of his old fans came in from Ceske Budejovice.
"I had my own little cheering section," he said.
Even though the collective bargaining agreement then still had two years left before its expiration Sept. 15, 2012, Ference began wondering what might be. What if there was another lockout? Where would he go?
"You knew there was a possibility" he might return to the Czech Republic, he said. "Having gone through the last one, you knew that anything was possible."
That has always been Ference's way, trying to see the big picture.
Ever since he was 16, playing junior hockey, Ference has always wondered about the next move, the next possibility. What would happen if he got injured? What was the plan?
"There's always been: What am I going to do next?" he said.
For the moment, at least, that question is answered.
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