Passion for the game continues to fuel Ford
Matthew Ford has never taken hockey for granted, particularly going into this season.
Ford (West Hills) spent nearly six months recovering from neck surgery after getting hit from behind in the Oklahoma City Barons’ final regular-season game.
“It was similar to Peyton Manning’s injury,” Ford said. “I lost about 85 percent of the strength in my right side.
“I had three months where I couldn’t do anything, and I trained hard for the past two. I feel really good now. As the nerve heals, I’m regaining strength.”
The importance of that can’t be understated because strength and conditioning are central to the 6-foot-1, 207-pound forward’s game.
“I play with a lot of energy,” Ford. “I’m pretty much the exact opposite of the typical, highly-skilled California hockey player.”
Yet Ford, who turned 30 earlier this month, has had staying power. This will be his seventh season in the American Hockey League after a four-year career at the University of Wisconsin, which included an NCAA title in 2006. He split his first season between the ECHL, where he was selected the MVP of the 2009 all-star game, and the AHL.
“I’m not in the National Hockey League, and every kid grows up wanting that,” he said. “But I’m making a living playing hockey every day. I’m having fun.”
It helps that this offseason he and his wife didn’t have to file change of address cards.
“I’ve been everywhere,” said Ford, joking that hockeydb.com requires two pages to chronicle his pro career. He’s played for six AHL franchises (Hartford, Lake Erie, Hersey, Adirondack, Springfield and Oklahoma City) plus the ECHL (Charlotte) one, in his first six seasons.
“After that first part of the year he hit his grove and became a big part of our success,” Barons coach Todd Nelson said. “He was great in front of the net on the power player. We really missed him in the playoffs.”
This stop has agreed with Ford more than most, he said.
“I have loved everything about it,” Ford said. “It’s perfect for a minor-league hockey team because it’s a little big city. The (parent Edmonton) Oilers treat us first class.”
Ford, who scored a career-high 47 points and was one off his career best of 26 goals, found himself in a new role with the Barons, one he relishes.
“This is a different role in the organization than I had in Philly (at Adirondack) or Washington (at Hershey),” he said. “Here it is a leadership role, it’s about taking care of little things.”
That role has been valuable for the Barons, Nelson said.
“When you get older, the young guys are always looking up to you,” Nelson said. “Matthew was a big part of the team jelling last season. He’s always in the gym early, always one of the hardest workers in practice, and the young guys see that and feed off it.”
Ford and friends Brian Salcido and Tyler Carlbom had an advantage over many of their peers who grew up playing hockey in California in the ’90s – their fathers played for the semi-pro Los Angeles Bruins and later became youth hockey coaches. Ford’s father, John, still plays goalie a couple of times a week.
“It was cool,” Ford said. “We grew up watching our dads play. A lot of (hockey) parents didn’t have as much knowledge.
“To this day my dad never lets me score. He still knows where I’m going to shoot, and he cheats. He’s tougher than some of these AHL goalies.”
Ford’s youth career started with the Marina Cities Sharks out of Culver City, continued with Norwalk and culminated with West Valley out of the old Iceoplex.
The trio’s West Valley Pee Wee AA team lost in the championship at the 1998 USA Hockey National Championships at then Glacial Garden in Lakewood.
“That was the best California team I played for,” Ford said. “We went to a lot of tournaments, and teams usually were laughing at us, and we’d come out and either give them a good game or beat them. It pushed us a lot.”
From there, Ford and Salcido played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep in Minnesota, where one of Ford’s linemates his senior season was a guy named Sidney Crosby.
“It was something else. I had just turned 18 and this 14-year-old comes in. At that age they’re already using words like ‘the next Gretzky’,” Ford said. “We never thought one of us would play in the NHL, but he was unbelievable. You could throw a puck anywhere within 10 feet of him and he’d catch it going full speed. There was something special about him.
“He and (former Los Angeles King) Jack Johnson were the young kids on our team. I didn’t even make the prep team until I was a senior, and here were a couple of 14-, 15-year-olds.”
– Chris Bayee