While on his way to the rink yesterday, Andrew Ference wasn't sure if practice would be held or not.
His Canmore Eagles had dropped a 5-3 decision to the Calgary Royals a night earlier, making it likely coach Bob Miller would put his boys through the paces.
Either way, Ference didn't want to be late.
"I think it's a $2 fine here," laughed the Flames defenceman as he neared the Canmore arena.
"I heard the defence wasn't very good last night. I'll have to give them (heck)."
While close to 200 NHLers have now crossed the pond to latch on with European teams, Ference crosses town daily to skate with his new squad of the Alberta Junior Hockey League.
While the 25-year-old Canmore resident is obviously too old to play for the junior A club, he has happily joined their ranks as a coach, of sorts.
Not only has he assumed responsibility for the development of the team's seven defenceman, he also partakes in all the drills he puts them through.
"Even in some of the more intense drills, we get right in there and he works us over and we try working him over," said wide-eyed Eagles defenceman Percy Mielnik.
"It's awesome. He comes right into our room and sits down with us and has a normal conversation. It's hard to believe he plays in The Show. He's just like one of the guys."
Coach Miller and Ference came up with the idea during the summer when the two would run into each other in and around Canmore.
"I wanted a place to skate and, if the opportunity to help out came up, I said I'd do it," said Ference, who played his WHL junior hockey in Portland.
"You don't get an opportunity to do that in a fairly high level of hockey. I'm basically a member of the defence corps and I do all the drills with them."
In fact, 20 minutes before every practice, he hits the ice early with the blueliners to take them through a series of drills Ference stole from Flames assistant Jim Playfair.
"It has kind of worked out better than I expected. They're at that age where they can kind of go either way," said Ference, an Edmonton native.
"I'm lucky because a lot of the older guys on defence lead the charge and are willing to learn and put in extra time. It's a coach's dream when that happens."
Having watched several of the team's games from the stands, Ference is reluctant to step behind the bench.
"Maybe I'd consider it but I'm kind of at a good place where I can help with a system but I'm not stepping on toes," said Ference, much to the chagrin of Flames coach Darryl Sutter.
"I'd kind of like to see him get behind the bench and fire a water bottle at a ref," joked Sutter.
"Actually, it's good for Andy. I see Tri-Cities just hired Olaf Kolzig as their goalie coach and (Darryl's son) Brett in Cranbrook was telling me that Rob Niedermayer's been out with them. It's great for those guys and the kids. Andrew lives right there and he played junior, so it's not like he's out of his element.
"He knows what it takes to climb through the ranks," Sutter added.
He also knows he'll have to give it all up to consider a European stint if the lockout lasts into December.
Until then, Eagles assistant coach Marshall Kennedy will continue to be amazed at the impact the NHLer is having on a veteran team.
"He shows our guys a lot of confidence," said Kennedy of the 5-ft. 10-in., 195-lb. Ference.
"I think some of our smaller guys look at Andrew and see he's not a big guy but he competes against guys who are a lot bigger than him. He's a big help that way."
He's always on time, too.