Even though the two have spent a large percentage of their young lives playing the sport of hockey, it was safe to say this one afternoon at Virtua Center Flyers Skate Zone, the place that played host to an exhibition loss by the Adirondack Phantoms to the Albany Devils by a score of 5-3, Ford and Johnston were on different clouds.
Ford, who turns 28 next Tuesday, is in the midst of his fifth AHL training camp, but his first with the Phantoms. This is old hat for the veteran, who was drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the eighth round (which no longer exists) of the 2004 NHL entry draft but chose to play four years of collegiate hockey at the University of Wisconsin, never signing with the ’Hawks.
He went the wringer, bouncing back and forth between the ECHL and the AHL on try-out contracts that last 25 days at a time. He earned a tryout in training camp with the Colorado Avalanche in 2010, but didn’t make the team and went back to the AHL where he posted a career best season to that point for the Lake Erie Monsters, tallying 26 goals and 42 points in 76 games.
That earned him his first pro deal, and he signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Washington Capitals, but didn’t make the team out of camp, being shipped to Hershey.
Halfway through last season, he was traded by the Caps to the Flyers in exchange for Kevin Marshall.
Upon his arrival to the Phantoms he averaged a point per game – scoring 19 goals and adding 12 assists for 31 points in 31 games.
Combined with his numbers from Hershey, Ford finished with 29 goals, 30 assists and 59 points, all career highs.
Certainly a late bloomer, the Flyers decided to see if Ford could maintain his performance level or even improve it, and signed him to another one-year, two-way contract.
If Ford continues to produce, he could be a possible call-up to the big club to fill-in for an injured player once the season begins.
Add to the fact that Ford will be playing against teams that are stockpiled with players with NHL experience, and he knows that the time is ripe for him to prove that he can play at the game’s highest level.
“This is going to be the best hockey league I’ve ever played in,” Ford said. “I’m really excited to get going here. I know what it means and I know what’s at stake. I can’t wait to really get going.”
And although Tuesday was just a practice game – against an Albany team that was missing several of its best players, Ford got himself on the scoresheet in the second period.
With the Phantoms trailing 4-1, Ford positioned himself in front of the net and waited for the puck to come his way.
“Sean (Couturier) and Ty McGinn were battling for the puck on the half wall and Sean got the puck to the point,” Ford said. “Brandon Manning took a shot and it was a little high, but I was going to my net and was able to get my stick on it and re-direct it high blocker.”
Ford had a decent bite in the game, and although that was his only point in the contest, it seemed like he was frequently involved for the Phantoms, who were able to muster 47 shots on the Albany goalies.
“I thought we played well after being down 3-0 seven minutes in,” Ford said. “We have to work on our competition level, which was down at the start, but we definitely had plenty of chances out there.”
As for Johnston, there were definitely some butterflies.
After last playing in the Sasketchewan Junior Hockey League, which is a couple tiers below the other junior hockey leagues in Canada, to find himself suddenly playing pro – even in an exhibition game – was something special for Johnston.
“It was a great experience,” Johnston said. “But I’m on a learning curve right now because it’s a big jump coming from the SJHL to here. There were a couple shifts I’d like to have back, but I’m going to learn from it and move on.”
A heady player, Johnston said he wants to absorb what he learned Tuesday and use that to improve in time for his next game, which will likely come this weekend either Friday in New Jersey against the same Devils team, or in New York against the Connecticut Whale Saturday.
“The speed of the game is better here, but everyone is a lot stronger on their stick here than what I’m used to,” Johnston said. “So, I have to prepare myself for that moving forward.”
And moving forward is all the Phantoms can do at this point, and if they’re going to have a successful campaign, it appears guys like Ford and Johnston are going to have to be at the forefront of that charge.
Notes: The Phantoms had three 5-on-3 power play opportunities in the game, but only scored on one of them. All told they were 2-for-9 with the man advantage with goals by Danny Syvret and Ty McGinn… Sean Couturier quarterbacked the power play from the point on the two-man advantages, something he hadn’t done since junior hockey. He said the team didn’t even have time to work on it prior to Tuesday and was improvising on the ice. Still, they generated a ton of chances… Zac Rinaldo was a whirling dervish in the first period, hitting anything that moved and drawing a couple of penalties in the process.
“I just had to get some nerves out and stir some rough stuff up in the first period,” he said. “In the second and third period I just stuck to hockey.”