Wikipedia cites Leo Rosten, author of The Joys of Yiddish, in describing the term “mensch.” “Someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.” The term is used as a high compliment, expressing the rarity and value of that individual’s qualities.
Andrew Ference is a mensch.
Of course, he is a hockey player, so we must bear in mind that on the ice, such things as rectitude, dignity and decorousness often take a back seat to ferocity, bullheadedness and the will to win.
But even considering his on-ice malfeasance (more on that later), Ference is one of those guys who, as the cliche has it, will walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
It’s impossible to discuss Andrew Ference without mentioning how he earned his most popular sobriquet, Captain Planet. In 2008, he began the NHLPA Carbon Neutral Challenge, in which NHL players purchase credits to offset the carbon footprint produced by their travel schedule. More than 500 players signed up within the first year, and the challenge continues today.
Ference doesn’t just think globally, however; he acts locally, from visiting schoolchildren to talk up the glories of composting and recycling, to riding his bike when it’s possible and driving his Prius when it’s not, to promoting and shopping at the local farmers’ market.
And it’s not just environmentalism. Ference has visited Africa with Right to Play. He combined two more of his pet projects, You Can Play and the November Project, to productive and hilarious effect. He and his family were regular visitors to Boston’s Pine Street Inn, a homeless shelter, and of course, he was always at the forefront in the Bruins’ visits to local hospitals. When he won the Stanley Cup, he partied with his neighborhood in Boston’s North End.
And doing the right thing doesn’t stop outside the locker room walls. Ference isn’t afraid to criticize his own teammates, as he did when Danny Paille was suspended for a head shot. He received heavy criticism in turn from Don Cherry types who insist it should always be “my teammate right or wrong,” but his own teammates had no problem with what he said. They know who Andrew Ference is.
And then there’s the Rangers jacket.
In 2011, when the Bruins went on their Stanley Cup run, the Bruins used a circa-1980s Bruins jacket Ference had purchased on eBay to give to the player of the game. When the run was over, Ference gave the jacket to retiring veteran Mark Recchi, who in turn gave it to the team. It is now immortalized under glass at TD Garden.
During the 2013 Cup run, Ference offered another jacket, given to him by Army Rangers he had befriended. After the Bruins lost to the Blackhawks in June, and he signed with Edmonton in July, Ference decided the jacket should go to a friend.
On the ice, Ference is the epitome of ferocity. Despite his relatively small (5-11, 190 pounds) frame, he never hesitates to come to the defense of a teammate. He has played through extraordinary pain (a groin that needed surgery following the 2010 playoffs, for example) without complaint. And though he’s not much of a goal-scorer, he always seemed to have a knack for the big play; as just one example, he scored the first goal against Vancouver in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup playoffs, opening the floodgates.
And then, of course, there was “the finger.”
The Bruins were trailing the Canadiens 3-1 in Game 4 of the 2011 Stanley Cup quarterfinals when Ference scored on a shot from the point, then turned around to the crowd and defiantly flashed his middle finger. The Bruins went on to the win the game, and ultimately, the series, and the Stanley Cup.
After the game, Ference claimed because of a “wardrobe malfunction” (new gloves), the finger had been inadvertent. Of course nobody bought it, and he was fined $2,500, but not admitting that it was purposeful probably saved him a suspension. (A distinction that Canadiens fans to this day can’t seem to understand.)
A year later, Ference’s conscience apparently caught up with him and he apologized. But Bruins fans who loathed the holier-than-thou Canadiens for years upon years will never forget: That middle finger was a cathartic moment for all of us, a grand, glorious, “EFF YOU MONTREAL,” on a par with Nathan Horton’s game-winning overtime goal in Game 7. The only thing better than winning the Stanley Cup was going through Montreal on the way.
The outspokeness, the competitiveness, the humor, the good works. Now Andrew Ference takes it all to Edmonton, a victim of the salary cap. If we (and the Bruins) had our druthers, he’d retire in Boston, but the world doesn’t work that way. He’s on Twitter, at @Ferknuckle, and he continues to tweet enthusiastically about the November Project, which he’s brought with him, and about the upcoming season with his new teammates. And every time I read his tweets, I cry a little inside.
Take care of him, Edmonton. Hopefully in four years we’ll see him back home in Boston, where he belongs.