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Condors’ Ford excels in California homecoming

 

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Matt Ford’s homecoming with the Bakersfield Condors of the American Hockey League (AHL) is, by his own account, going quite nicely.

“I’ve taken the best opportunity to come back,” said Ford, a San Fernando Valley native. “First of all, you can’t beat the weather, and being able to come home has been a blessing for myself, my wife and our family.

“Playing in front of my 95-year-old grandmother (during a recent game in Ontario against the Reign, the Los Angeles Kings’ AHL affiliate) certainly was pretty special in itself.”

Ford, 31, grew up playing youth hockey in Southern California before leaving the state as a teenager to play prep school at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Faribault, Minn. While there, he won a Midget AAA national championship in 2002-03 alongside future NHL star Sidney Crosby, who even then at 14-years-old already showed signs of greatness.

Ford’s hockey odyssey took him to the United States Hockey League, the University of Wisconsin, where he won a NCAA Division I championship his sophomore year, then embarking on a professional career in the ECHL and AHL.

But all those stops were outside California.

Now, he’s finally back in the Golden State and making the most of what has become an eight-year pro career (albeit with seven different NHL organizations and their affiliates).

Through the Condors’ opening 29 games, he led the team in scoring with 26 points on 15 goals while appearing in 27 games. His 15 markers handily led the team (six ahead of teammates Joey LaLeggia and Jordan Oesterle, both with nine tallies).

Ford’s seven power-play goals also were a team-best, as were his two short-handed goals.

In fact, the West Hills product is on pace to post single-season career numbers with Bakersfield this season. His most productive season in terms of total points as a pro came last season in Oklahoma City when he collected 53 points in 69 regular-season games with the Barons. He scored 26 goals in 76 games with the Lake Erie Monsters during the 2010-11 AHL season.

His previous high was 25 goals in 73 regular-season games with OKC in 2013-14.

Ford took over the Bakersfield team scoring lead on the strength of a seven-game point-scoring streak that includes six goals and 11 points. The Condors next take the ice on Jan. 8-9 for a two-game home stand against the San Antonio Rampage and Ontario.

Ford continues in his quest to master the game he’s played most of his life.

“I bring an offensive skill set (to the team), but at the same time I want to play the right way, and I can get that with more ice time,” he said. “Being at this level, there’s a lot of skill – it’s the second-best in North America – but as you can see, it’s about consistency sometimes.”

This is Ford’s third season with the Condors organization – the previous two of which were spent in Oklahoma City with the Barons, the Edmonton Oilers’ AAA affiliate. But when the mass migration of teams from both the AHL and ECHL occurred during the offseason, Ford followed the former OKC club to Bakersfield as teams from both leagues switched sides of the North American continent.

The return to the state of his birth has produced its share of family reunions. Besides performing in front of his grandmother, he met cousins after a recent game in San Diego.

Ford could be making an addition to the California population soon. He and his wife, Cassie, are expecting their first child in July.

Ford said his dream of one day playing in the NHL remains alive.

“It’s still the goal,” he said. “But you can measure success in different ways. Being able to play hockey this long is pretty gratifying.”

Great Outdoors

Ford and his Condors teammates were part of history when the AHL held its first outdoor game on Dec. 19 at Sacramento’s Raley Field – home of the San Francisco Giants’ AAA baseball team in the Pacific Coast League.

Bakersfield took on the Stockton Heat in a game that counted in the Pacific Division standings. The contest was the eighth outdoors for the league, but the first west of the Mississippi River.

The novelty contest attracted a crowd of 9,357 to the venue that features 10,624 fixed seats.

Ford tied for the team-lead with six shots and picked up one assist in the outdoor game.

“Playing hockey outside in California … I should have been a baseball player,” Ford tweeted to his followers.

AHL president and chief executive officer David Andrews called the outdoor game “a showcase” for the AHL’s new Pacific Division, which includes five California teams.

The game actually took place one day after it was originally scheduled after being postponed due to heavy rain that left the ice rink looking more like a pond.

But the elements subsided and everyone who attended the history-making event had a good time, particularly the Stockton players, who skated off with a 3-2 victory.

Condors coach Gerry Fleming – a seven-year pro as a player in the AHL and in his eighth year coaching (either as an assistant or head coach in the league) – admitted it was the first time he’d ever been part of something like that.

Kyle Platzer scored both Bakersfield goals in the game, while the Heat captured the come-from-behind win on goals by Derek Grant, Oliver Kylington and Drew Shore. Stockton goaltender Joni Ortio stopped 33 of 35 shots, while Ben Scrivens made 35 saves in the loss.

The Condors finished the month of December with a 5-2-2-0 record (4-0-0-0 on home ice) to move north of the .500 mark (13-11-2-1) in the division standings.

“Proud to be part of this group,” Ford tweeted after a recent set of wins.

Kassian Comes to Condorstown

Right wing Zack Kassian joined the Condors on Dec. 28 after being acquired by the Oilers from the Montreal Canadiens.

The former first-round draft pick (13th overall) in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft by Buffalo has played 198 games in the NHL for the Sabres and Vancouver Canucks and rang up more than 300 penalty minutes.

Kassian, 24, won a Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires in 2010 and took home silver for Team Canada at the 2011 World Junior Championship. He was named to the AHL All-Star Team as a rookie in 2011-12 as a member of the Rochester Americans.

Kassian was traded for Scrivens. Kassian scored his first goal for the Condors in a 3-1 loss in Stockton on Jan. 3

Scrivens set an NHL record with 59 saves in a 3-0 win over the San Jose Sharks in his Oilers’ debut on Jan. 29, 2014. A one-time Los Angeles King (19 games in 2013-14), Scrivens has also played in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs (2011-13) and Oilers (2013-15).

Scrivens had a .893 save percentage, 3.47 goals-against average and one shutout in 10 games this season for Bakersfield. He’ll likely get a shot at backup duty with the Canadiens, who sent their second-stringer Dustin Tokarski to their AHL affiliate, the St. John’s IceCaps.

– Phillip Brents

Photo: San Fernando Valley native Matt Ford has made his California homecoming this season with the AHL’s Bakersfield Condors. Photo/Phillip Brents