By Mike Cadarette
ABBOTSFORD, BC - It's like watching a different person, a different player.
No longer the wide-eyed rookie of yesteryear, Michael Ferland's vision is clear. He knows what to expect and what's expected of him. But his learning process wasn't as smooth as he would've liked.
In just one season Ferland went through a series of trials and tribulations, but instead of letting the adversity wear him down physically and mentally, he grew - not just as a player, but as a person off the ice.
"I think one of the strengths of where he is now is a by-product of what happened last year," reflected Heat bench boss Troy G. Ward.
"There were just so many turns that went the wrong way. He couldn't get himself out of a cul-de-sac. He couldn't get turned around in there and he couldn't find his way out. His address was Circle Drive. He had trouble finding himself out of that, but I think that was a good thing for him. In the end I think he grew up a lot because of it."
Ferland's 'cul-de-sac' of setbacks was long. He came to the Heat's training camp out of shape and ran two-a-days for the two week camp. After an underwhelming start to his pro debut, he was sent down to the ECHL's Utah Grizzlies for a brief stint followed by a return to the Brandon Wheat Kings. He was then traded shortly after to the Mastercard Memorial Cup host Saskatoon Blades where he and the team didn't have the showing they probably would've liked. Combine that with bad eating and sleeping habits along with an off-ice issue and it's fair to say the Brandon, MB native would've liked to erase the 2012-13 season from his memory.
But he didn't.
"Obviously it was a tough year last year," said Ferland, "but I think I learned a lot. I learned what's expected of a professional hockey player. I think I had a good summer. I felt a lot better than I did last year.
"Obviously I learned a lot on ice, but especially stuff off ice. It really prepared me last year for this year. It was a learning experience last year. I learned what was expected and that really helped me out."
Four teams in just one season requires an immense amount of adjustment to new teammates and new coaching staff.
"You know he had a lot of different touches last year too," explained Ward. "He had different people that entered his life at different times. He started here with this staff [in Abbotsford], he ended up going down to the [ECHL] and got a taste of that for a little bit of time. Then he went back home to his junior team and figured out, 'Well now I go back and I'm a different man. I've had some pro experience in me, then I went to the Coast, now I'm back here. What does this register like?'
"Then he went to a whole another team and became a boisterous leader on that team if you watched the shows that they did. He was an active guy in the locker room. It kind of seemed like a messed up team and he kind of matured through that whole thing."
Some young players find it nearly impossible to come back from such adversity, but Ward credits Ferland's unmatched passion for the game as the primary reason for his comeback.
"It's pure passion … Michael's wiring, he's always had a greater passion than some of the other guys I've come across."
When asked who helped him through the tough times, who helped him grow and develop as a player and a person, Ferland acknowledged he had a lot of support from a lot different people, but one person stuck out.
"Mike Thompson, the strength coach, he's a great, great, great friend of mine. He's helped me through a lot of things and if I ever need someone to talk to he's probably the main guy I go and talk to. So I really look up to Tommy, he's a great guy."
Now, like the Six Million Dollar Man, he's back in a Heat uniform and just finished what looked like a breakout month of November. After starting the first 11 games of the season without a point, he's picked up 16 points in his last 12 games. He's playing physical, he's creating offensively, but most of all, he's having fun.
"The way I feel about hockey now is that I always want to play. You know, I leave the rink and just want to get ready for the next game. Obviously, I feel really passionate about it. I just want to keep going and keep playing."
The Flames' 2010 fifth-rounder has a unique skill set that no other Flames prospect seems to have. Ferland's combination of hands, physicality, vision, energy, speed and pugilistic abilities is "huge" for the Flames organization, according to Ward.
When asked if Ferland realizes his true importance to the Flames based on his skill set, Ward replied, "Not yet, no."
"I don't think it'll hit for him until he gets there [to the NHL] and gets a taste of it. I think when he gets a taste of it and he finds that he can translate - it's like going from AAA to Major League baseball. Once you know you can hit the curveball in both spots, you know you've arrived. He's still got to the hit the curve up there.
"I think he needs to go up there and feel it and see it and realize, 'Heh, it's not a big deal.' Then I think it'll turn for him. I think the taste will come through. He's just got to hit the curve. Once he does that, I think he'll be fine and realize what he's got."
Until then, the learning and development process will continue for Ferland and the fans and organization hopes November is just a small part of what Michael Ferland can become.
"It's hard to go draft those players and then have them cultivated into what you think they can eventually be being drafted at such a young age," said Ward.
"As you can tell, you're talking in terms of not a lot of guys like him [in the system]. So this is the one egg that we have and we've got to make that egg shine."