Andrew Ference remembers what it was like when he arrived in Boston in 2007, before the Bruins' run of six straight playoff appearances, when fans weren't hockey crazy and players hadn't proven anything.
"It was a bunch of guys with no playoff experience — hadn't been in the playoffs for a number of years," Ference said.
After signing a four-year deal with his hometown Edmonton Oilers earlier this month, the veteran defenceman is back in a similar position on a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2006. Ference hopes he can help orchestrate a similar turnaround.
"You realize how easy it is to build on potential and have the tide turn fairly quickly," Ference said. "You look at this team and how close it is to kind of getting over that hump, it's exciting. It's really neat to be a part of that, and to see potential turn into reality is a pretty special thing to be a part of."
The 34-year-old Ference brings Stanley Cup-winning experience to a young Oilers team that features a core of No. 1 picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov. Ference won't be counted on to be a star, but he has expectations for himself to end the post-season drought.
"Of course I come in feeling a huge responsibility, just like I think every guy on the team probably should," he said. "That's the only way to take the next step forward."
Ference grew up in the Sherwood Park area of Edmonton and his parents were season-ticket-holders, so he witnessed first-hand the Oilers' glory years, when they won five Cups in seven years. Coming back to "familiar surroundings" helped make his decision, as did playing in another hockey-centric market.
He's at a different stage of his career than he was when he was in Pittsburgh with Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr or in Calgary with Jarome Iginla and Martin Gelinas. Now Ference is considered a leader.
Ference knows what it takes from his time with the Bruins but also understands winning begins with management and coaches.
"Then it filters down to the team itself," he said. "One of the biggest things we had (in Boston) was a huge sense of accountability where everybody demanded the best out of each other."
Ference spoke to coach Dallas Eakins during a two-day interview period before the start of free agency and felt like they saw the game the same way. Once he considered the raw talent the Oilers had, he realized this mix could do more next season and beyond.
"From an outsider looking in you can tell that it gets old when people talk about potential and talk about just young guys all the time," Ference said. "I'm sure they're eager to shake off that label of potential. It gets old for players, and you want to be able to take that next step eventually."