The Tipping Point: How Flames’ Micheal Ferland overcame alcohol addiction
Micheal Ferland is on the move again.
He’s in the offensive zone, between the goal line and the faceoff circle, hunting the puck. He cycles it over his right shoulder, off the end boards behind the opposing net, and then disappears up the ice, towards the blue line and out of camera view. One of his linemates, Calgary Flames star Johnny Gaudreau, takes the pass and throws a few jukes at four Colorado Avalanche skaters. Like the March 27 Sportsnet audience, they’re about to get caught watching.
As Gaudreau makes his move and wraps around short-side, Ferland reappears in the frame. The puck hits goalie Calvin Pickard’s left pad, bouncing into the slot. Squared up to the crease, Ferland whacks the rebound in stride. It clangs off the post and into the net. Ferland raises his arm. No one had seen him coming back.
It was the 15th and final goal of his season, nine more than Ferland had over 97 games in 2014-15 and ‘15-16 combined. More than a month earlier, against Nashville on Feb. 21, coach Glen Gulutzan had stuck him with Gaudreau and center Sean Monahan, to which Ferland had responded by scorching two top-shelf lasers past Predators goalie Pekka Rinne.
After skating with Calgary’s usual top-liners for a couple of brief, unremarkable stretches last season, Ferland had entered summer set on reclaiming that job. “I was waiting for the opportunity,” he says. “It’s just something I trained for, to be a top-six forward.” As Calgary prepares for its first-round series this week against Anaheim, champions of the Pacific Division, the 24-year-old hasn’t yet budged from his perch beside the team’s leading scorers.
He’s not quite like Edmonton winger Patrick Maroon, riding shotgun with Hart Trophy favorite Connor McDavid by mucking around the crease and punching layups past out-of-position goalies. But he’s complemented Gaudreau and Monahan with comparable physicality and scoring touch. He possesses a wicked slapshot, which Flames general manager Brad Treviling calls “as hard as we have on our team,” and clubs one-timers like an overzealous chimney sweeper.
Sure, it doesn’t quite hurt that he’s playing with Calgary’s best forwards; a particularly saucy no-look backhander from Gaudreau, for instance, sprung Ferland for a breakaway against Carolina on Feb. 26. But when Guluztan first put the trio together, his message to Ferland had been, “Don’t try to be something else.” And he hasn’t.
Which brings us back to March 27 at Scotiabank Saddledome, where fans once went nuts over No. 79 during the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. After all, it was Ferland who launched the Flames into the Western Conference semifinals with two goals and three points against Vancouver in Game 6 of the first round, the franchise’s first series win since ‘08-09. “He gave the Canucks reasons to quit,” says Bob Hartley, the former Calgary coach. “He was no fun to play against. He was the MVP of that series.”
What mattered this night, though, wasn’t a 4-2 win over the last-place Avs, which moved the Flames within a regulation victory of punching their return to the postseason. Or an empty-net assist that gave Ferland a fourth career multi-point game. In 2015 and 2016, Ferland had treated the anniversary of his sobriety like a big deal. But now, three years after he left the southern California rehab center and set about returning his life to the rails, March 27, 2017 passed with striking normalcy.
“It was weird,” he says. “Now I’m kind of used to it. It’s just part of my lifestyle. The first two years I’d celebrate, go for supper. I’m past that stage now.”
Micheal Ferland was always on the move.
At least, that’s what Mike Thompson thought when they first crossed paths, nearing the end of the ‘11-12 season. Ferland had just completed a 96-point tour with the Brandon Wheat Kings, which ranked ninth in the Western Hockey League, and came to Abbotsford, B.C., to skate with Calgary’s minor-league affiliate, the Heat. As the team’s strength coach, Thompson had plenty other scatterbrained young adults to oversee. But Ferland was the worst; between sets, he’d always wander away to check out the board or get a drink. “I’d have to travel after him,” Thompson remembers. “He couldn’t stay focused.”
Over time, Thompson gradually realized why. A man of faith, he roughly quotes a proverb that derives from New Testament teachings to explain: “Idle time is the devil’s playground for an alcoholic,” he says. “We’re irritable and discontent. We have to be doing something all the time.” In other words, he knows from experience. Growing up in Kingston, Ontario, Thompson was a decently promising hockey player who attended camp for the OHL’s Kingston Canadiens. But he also smoked too much weed and boozed too hard “and still kept partying, so those opportunities went away.”
Then Thompson attended his first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting on June 18, 1991. He’s been clean ever since. In Ferland, Thompson began seeing bits of himself. A few months after their first encounter, in the leadup to the ‘12-13 NHL lockout, Ferland returned to camp in Abbotsford having ballooned to 230-plus pounds, with 15 percent body fat. He had also recently gotten into a bar fight that sent his opponent to the hospital, though charges were eventually dropped.
As a result, Thompson says he received strict orders from Flames management to craft a training program that forbade Ferland from drinking alcohol, but Thompson realized that was impossible to enforce. He recalls asking one of Ferland’s teammates if Ferland had gone drinking one night, which Ferland had denied doing. “Depends on what you mean by drinking,” he recalls the roommate replying. “Yeah we went out. A couple beers and five shots…not really drinking.” Steam damn near shot from Thompson’s ears, and he worked Ferland for three straight hours as payback. But more than most he also knew what it felt on the other side. “You can't help somebody unless they want help,” he says.
The tipping point came the following season, ‘13-14. Ferland had settled into a relative groove with Abbotsford, back in solid shape with 18 points in 25 games to show for the improvement. He and Thompson grew closer, often ducking into hallways at the rink to pray before games. The Flames had even sent word that Ferland was next up to be recalled, which would’ve meant making his NHL debut. Then at one mid-December practice he collided with a teammate, hurt his knee, and required surgery. Ferland spent the initial part of his recovery training with Thompson in Abbotsford. That’s when the warning signs got more obvious. Once, Ferland asked Thompson, “Hey, tell me how you got sober.” Thompson explained that he had attended AA meetings, even offering to bring Ferland if he wanted, but their schedules never aligned.
Around a month post-operation, on Jan. 18, 2014, the two attended a Flames-Canucks game at Rogers Arena, the same night John Tortorella famously confronted Hartley outside Calgary’s dressing room. Later, Hartley asked Thompson if he thought Ferland was an alcoholic. Thompson said that he did. Hartley had already been keeping tabs on Ferland from afar, often phoning to check in, “pump him up, or just try to get him to focus on good parts of life.”
So management summoned Ferland to continue his rehab in Calgary. And pretty soon, the morning after another bad bender, Ferland was called into Hartley’s office and heard his coach say, “There are days you have to stop lying to yourself. Today is the day.” Then he was flying to Malibu, Calif., where he spent a month in rehab, starting on March 27. Ferland never told fellow patients that he played hockey. “I liked people not knowing who I was,” he says.
Of course, he’s still always on the go. When Ferland started the ‘14-15 season in Glens Falls, N.Y., where the Heat had relocated and become the Adirondack Flames, he bought a snowmobile and began ice-fishing more often. “That's how he dealt with staying sober,” Thompson says. Now two-plus seasons into his tenure with Calgary, in the NHL for good after that strong playoff ‘15 run, Ferland likes taking his 11-month-old daughter, Brynlee, to swimming lessons and a trampoline park chain called Flying Squirrel. She just started walking and buzzes around like dad.
“I feel if I didn’t become sober three years ago, I probably wouldn’t be playing hockey anymore,” he says. “And I definitely wouldn’t have my daughter. If I stayed on the path I was on, maybe I would slip by and play a few games in the NHL. But maybe if I changed what I was doing, I could have a good career. So I chose that way.”
The friendly, familiar French-Canadian accent pipes through the telephone, coming all the way from the Baltics. Seven months after Calgary fired him last May, Hartley took a job coaching the Latvian national team, though his contract expires after the upcoming world championships. Even with the time difference he still keeps tabs on the Flames, who enjoyed a 17-point, 10-win turnaround under Gulutzan. He feels a special connection to other young players, like Gaudreau and Monahan, who kept their promise to attend his annual camp in western Pennsylvania as guest instructors last summer. But he’s immensely proud of Ferland.
“I always told him, ‘Give yourself a chance. You’re an NHL player,’” Hartley says. “The way he was shooting, skating…maybe it was just a hunch on my part, but I was ready to go through fire to give him a chance. As long as he wanted a chance.”
Indeed, Ferland first had to come around at his own pace, on his own terms. But allies have steadily lined up to help along the way. Like Hartley, who nicknamed Ferland, “Baby Luc,” believing that he could develop into a power forward a la Milan Lucic. And Ferland’s fiancee, Kayleigh Chapman, a former college hockey player who gave birth to Brynlee last April. And Flames president Brian Burke, who came down to Hartley’s office that March afternoon and helped make arrangements for Ferland to get help through the NHL’s substance abuse program. And even Treliving, who while working in the Coyotes’ front office had consistently lobbied to trade for Ferland and was glad he hadn’t succeeded upon assuming Calgary’s GM job in April ‘14. When that happened, Ferland had just returned from Malibu, still months away from his NHL debut. Nonetheless, he received one of Treliving’s first calls.
“The shot, the awareness around the net, the ability to use those hands for good and evil…there’s very few of them who can do that,” Treliving says. “Watching him grow from just a guy trying to make it in the league to a father and having a family, and how far he’s come and the work he’s put into it, is pretty remarkable.”
Calling from aboard the Flames’ chartered flight as they headed to Anaheim for Wednesday’s series-opener, Treliving stops short of claiming foresight for Ferland’s success with Gaudreau and Monahan; after all, they didn’t skate together until game 60 because their brief tenure as a trio last season hadn’t gone as hoped. But with heavy doses of Ryan Getzlaf and/or Ryan Kesler on the upcoming menu, an effective Ferland means having a physical counter to flank the Flames' playmakers.
“I think his mindset changed a little,” Treliving says of Ferland. “It’s just an evolution. He’s a little more mature. The initial thought when you play with good players like that is, ‘I don’t want to mess them up.’ He’s more confident in his game. A year older, wiser, all those sorts of things. It’s worked.”
So did, Ferland found, opening up about his struggles in public. It’s an uncomfortable topic to bring up over the phone, but he speaks honestly and plainly, like he has in other interviews. He says several opposing NHL players have even approached him on the ice during games, asking about his recovery been going confiding in him stories of their own path to sobriety. “It makes me feel better,” Ferland says, “talking about it instead of keeping it in.”