His star defenceman has missed most of the season with a high-ankle sprain. His franchise scoring leader asked to be traded to a contender last month. And the Everett Silvertips are dead last.
In spite of it all, Mark Ferner is thrilled to be back as a head coach in the Western Hockey League.
The Silvertips limped into the Christmas break at 6-21-1-5, unfamiliar territory for a coach who amassed a sparkling 165-51-7-14 record (.741 win percentage) and two national Junior A titles in four seasons behind the bench of the BCHL Vernon Vipers.
“It’s a tremendous challenge. I knew what I was getting myself into,” said Ferner, 46, who is working with Silvertips’ general manager Doug Soetaert, owner Bill Yuill and the coaching staff to reestablish a winning culture.
Everett’s rebuild might be a few years away from completion, but just like he did in Vernon, Ferner demands his players’ best effort, at practice and in game situations.
“I don’t think anything changes – the expectation is to win every time. It has to be, and the players have to know that. You don’t win without developing, and you don’t develop without winning. The two go hand in hand,” said Ferner.
“We’re still searching for our identity, but our cupboards are full with good, young prospects.
“As far as the frustration’s concerned, our group has been good about it. We’ve made that commitment that we are going to be young and we’re going to lick our wounds.”
Ferner spent three years as an associate coach, and one as head coach, of the Kamloops Blazers (2002-06), so he is familiar with the Bantam draft process and how it differs from BCHL recruiting.
“You’ve got your 50-man (protected player) list and you have to look after it. You really have to manage your list well and you have to have it in the right age groups.”
Ferner, who played 15 years of pro, including 91 NHL games (with Buffalo, Washington, Anaheim and Detroit), is impressed by the top-end talent in the WHL, but noted there are BCHLers that would hold their own in the league.
“That’s the difference from the Western league to Junior A…you look at a team like Portland (Winterhawks) and they can throw five first-rounders on the powerplay,” he said.
The Silvertips gave their fans (and themselves) something to cheer about heading into the holidays when they snapped a 10-game winless streak by grounding the Spokane Chiefs 6-2 in their final game before Christmas. Down 2-1, the ‘Tips fired five unanswered goals in the last two periods to secure the much-needed win. They further entertained 5,800 raucous fans at Comcast Arena with a four-fight night.
“It was a nice way to end, but at the same time they know they have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Dealing Everett’s all-time leading scorer, Tyler Maxwell (195 points in 216 games), to the Edmonton Oil Kings was a blow, added Ferner, but getting injured franchise defenceman Ryan Murray back in the lineup more than makes up for it. The 18-year-old from White City, Sask. is one of two undrafted players with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships in Edmonton and Calgary, and that’s because he isn’t old enough yet.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to coach a kid like that in Junior hockey,” said Ferner. “A great kid that will have a great future in the NHL. We don’t really expect him to be back next year. He’ll probably be a top-five pick (in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft) for sure.”
Vernon-born Ryan Harrison, a fourth-year forward and first cousin to former Viper captain David Robinson, likes Ferner’s cool demeanour.
“He’s a really good teacher of the game. Even though we’ve been losing, he and our assistant coach (ex-Tip Mitch Love) have improved my defensive play. I know where to be on the ice. They’ve even taught me how to block shots.”
Harrison is trying to play an all-round game and has eight goals and 16 points, and is only a minus two.
“I’ve played with every person on the team,” he laughed. Lately, we’ve started to play some very good hockey.”
He said Ferner has remained mostly positive through all the carnage.
“From time to time he’s lost his cool, and Dave said he had never seen him do that, but for the most part, he’s been cool and calm and he’s still teaching us a lot.”
Vernon’s Zach McPhee is familiar with Ferner’s style, having played with the Vipers last season. In 12 games with Everett, the towering forward has two goals and two assists, and has a plus-3 rating. However, he will be on the shelf for the foreseeable future after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery in early December.
Ferner chose the Silvertip gig partly because of the west coast location, and partly because of his connection with Soetaert and the hockey staff. He rents a place in Everett, but still calls Vernon home. Wife Jody and son Mac, a d-man with the Major Midget Okanagan Rockets, still live in town.
“I don’t have any regrets by any means, other than our record, but we’re going to get there too,” he said. “All I expect is for our kids to work and that has to be non-negotiable.”