SUN Hockey Pool

Czech trekking

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

Andrew Ference is a young NHLer.

Hasn't made millions upon millions.

Makes him the perfect candidate for a replacement player if the NHL goes that direction next fall, right?

Guess again.

Ference understands the league's owners may have the right to use replacement players if this season is kiboshed completely but the Flames defenceman insists they shouldn't knock on his door.

"Not a chance," he said of crossing the proverbial picket line.

"I think it's a horrible course for the NHL to take. It's their decision to make but if that's what they want to call the NHL, they can feel free.

"It'd be a sham. The NHL is the best league in the world. It's not a pretend league with replacement players.

"It wouldn't be the best league in the world if they did it that way."

What Ference would rather see, along with so many other NHLers currently locked out, is a solution to the labour dispute that's nearing 11 weeks in length with no end in sight.

Until then, though, the affable Albertan who makes his home in Canmore, has decided to join Roman Turek and play for Budejovice in the Czech Republic.

A sign he's given up hope?

"I'm not optimistic (of a solution) but I haven't completely written it off," Ference said. "Even if the NHL does start up, it's good for me to go there for however long it'll be. Even if it's two or three weeks, playing and getting into game speed and whatnot (is good)."

Radek Dvorak and Vaclav Prospal also play for the first-division squad.

"It'll be good. That's a couple of pretty good forwards to get the puck to," said Ference, who was helping coach the AJHL Canmore Eagles.

"If our season ended earlier, we hadn't made the playoffs or been out the first round, I probably would have went over earlier. With the length of our season ... it was a blessing in the fact it (offered) an opportunity to wait longer, heal up and get healthy. It took a while to get healthy and get rid of the nagging things from the season. I think there's quite a few guys who trashed their bodies."

Of course, he understands he'll be criticized for stealing a job overseas. Currently, close to 300 players, about one-third of the NHLPA membership, are playing in Europe. However, Ference said he knows the time has come for him to resume playing.

"If you're a fan of the Flames, a fan of the players and want your team to do well, it's important those same players stay sharp and continue to accelerate their game," he said. "There's kids in the AHL who'll next year try to come up and take our jobs if we're not sharp or getting better.

Ference also had an offer from Tappara for more money but he chose the Czech Republic because he has distant relatives from Slovakia and the Ukraine and also because of Turek.

"I've always wanted to see that area," he said. "The hockey is a lot different, a big ice surface and a lot of skill. I think it's a really good opportunity for me to expand my horizons and improve my game."

Other Flames overseas include: Miikka Kiprusoff (Timra), Marcus Nilson (Djurgarden) and Byron Ritchie (Rogle) in Sweden; Ville Nieminen (Tappara) in Finland; Martin Gelinas (Morges) and Shean Donovan (Geneva-Servette) in Switzerland; and Steve Reinprecht and Steve Montador (Mulhouse) in France.

Ference's departure comes just a bit early for a golden chance he'd love. An outspoken individual who refuses to pull punches, he's leaving without getting a chance to be on-hand for the arrival of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman tomorrow. He'd certainly be an interesting addition to any welcoming committee.

"I'd love to have dinner with him," he said.


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