Neither life in the big American city nor all of that success in Vernon, where he spent four seasons coaching the junior A Vipers, has changed the man who now is the head coach of the WHL’s Everett Silvertips.
He’s still the same Mark Ferner, one of our city’s favourite sons, albeit adopted, whose stint as head coach of the then-your Kamloops Blazers ended the way so many of these relationships do.
Yes, he was fired.
“Was I ready to coach here?” he asks, before adding: “I don’t know if I was or not.”
The tone of his voice, however, tells you the answer.
He continues: “Being honest . . . with what the situation was . . . we all understand and all know that situation when Dean (Clark) had stepped down and just wanted to be the GM.”
To take you back, it was the 2004-05 season. The Blazers were owned by a group of community shareholders and the organization was trying to overcome, among other things, the disappearance of about $1 million, the eventual jailing of the office manager, the resignation of the franchise’s long-time president and on and on.
Twenty games into 2004-05, Clark stepped aside and Ferner moved up from associate coach to head coach.
The next season, with the Blazers 16-16-0 and playing mostly uninspired hockey, Clark pulled the pin on Ferner. It was a bitter experience that opened an abyss between the former teammates.
“I talk to Hitch a lot,” Ferner says, referencing former Blazers head coach Ken Hitchcock, “and he said, ‘You really don’t become a coach, a real coach, until you’ve been fired.’ ”
Until you have felt the pain?
“Yeah . . . yeah,” Ferner says and more scar tissue breaks free.
If that doesn’t make you a coach, winning championships will.
Under Ferner, the Vipers experienced only 51 regulation-time losses in 240 regular-season games. They won the last three BCHL championships. They won two straight RBC national titles before losing in the final last spring.
Clearly, Ferner could have stayed in Vernon indefinitely. Just as clearly, it was time to move.
“I want to give myself an opportunity to coach pro hockey,” Ferner says. “I don’t know if I could get to the pro level from junior A.”
During his stint in Vernon, he heard from pro teams. They loved the success he had had but, at day’s end, it still was junior A. Which is how it came to pass that Doug Soetaert, the general manager of the Silvertips, on July 6 introduced Ferner as the fourth head coach in franchise history.
The Silvertips, who are in their ninth WHL season, have had an uncommon amount of success in their early life. But it started to come apart last season and Soetaert has undertaken a full-scale rebuild.
As Ferner stands and talks, his Silvertips are 8-26-8. Two nights later, they are 8-27-9. They aren’t likely to make the playoffs, something that will feel strange to Ferner, considering his last three seasons with the Vipers.
The U.S. Division also is a tough place in which to live when you are working on your foundation. It is home to the Tri-City Americans, perhaps the CHL’s model franchise these days, as well as the Portland Winterhawks and Spokane Chiefs, who aren’t far behind.
Ferner knows that, but he feels his young charges can only learn from those three teams.
“The culture has to change,” he says, repeating something that was a mantra during his days on the Blazers’ coaching staff.
He now sees a big part of his job as “making sure that the kids understand what the expectations are and that there is no substitute for hard work. Regardless of the talent level that we have, the one thing that has to stay consistent is our work ethic . . . and that’s non-negotiable.”
These days, he says, it’s all about work ethic and trust.
“Confidence is a huge thing in this game,” he notes, “and they’re a fragile group right now. There has to be a lot of teaching, not babying, but at the same time the message has been sent if you’re not going to work, you’re not going to play.”
That message was delivered via ex-Blazers winger J.T. Barnett, who was a healthy scratch Friday against the visiting Chiefs.
That is the Ferner way, something some players will learn the hard way.
In a conversation last week, Kamloops defenceman Bronson Maschmeyer talked about how structured play and trust in each other have played roles in the Blazers’ success to this point. That is exactly what Ferner is trying to establish with the Silvertips.
“We need to trust what we’re doing; we need to trust each other,” Ferner says.
He tells his players to “go out and believe you’re good enough to be here. You’re here because you’re a good player. You’re not here because of things you can’t do; you’re here because of things you can do.”
Yes, he feels he is making progress, but sometimes it is slow going.
He says the process hasn’t been hard on him personally, but admits that “it’s humbling . . . no question.”
But, he adds, “it’s hockey and I understand where we’re at, where we just consistently can’t do it for 60 minutes right now. We see flashes of it . . . if the game was 27 minutes long, some nights we’d be OK. It’s getting them to understand it’s not a sometime thing, it’s an all-the-time thing.”
In other words, Ferner, as usual, is all-in. He wants to make sure his players are, too.
(Gregg Drinnan is sports editor of The Daily News. He is at firstname.lastname@example.org, gdrinnan.blogspot.com and twitter.com/gdrinnan.)