Charlotte Checkers forward Matthew Ford
learned at an early age what it means to have to prove yourself on an hour-by-hour basis.
Ford's mom and dad each put in 30-plus years working for American Airlines at the Los Angeles International Airport. Kathleen was a gate agent, while John still works as a ramp instructor. They work in circumstances where there is virtually no room for error while meeting the demands of customers at one of the busiest travel hubs in the world.
Matthew used to go to work with Kathleen. One day, he saw a traveler berating a gate agent over some problem. Matthew asked his mom if people yelled at her like that. She said sometimes, and that you just have to stay calm and do your best.
"I don't think I could do it," Matthew said of his mother's work. "It takes a cool head to be able to come in every day and do that."
True enough, but the son is doing his best to bring similar tunnel vision to his chosen profession.
Ford, 25, made himself comfortable after practice in Charlotte one afternoon last week, popped in a DVD of the movie "Ali" and tried to watch it through half-closed eyes.
"During the year, I don't take that many naps. But right now, we're at the rink from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. I'm beat," he said. "I'm probably doing a little extra now. I want to push myself."
Ford, an eighth-round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks
in 2004, is drained from pushing back against an early career wall. He's trying to follow up on a breakout rookie year -- 21 goals, 17 assists for the Checkers -- by nudging his way into an AHL lineup.
He got 25 games with Hartford and five more with Lake Erie last season. This season, he swung by Vancouver's rookie camp and got another look with the Monsters, but didn't stick at either place.
"You can't do the numbers game. That would be frustrating," he said. "Whether you stay there or don't stay there, you have to do your thing. I'm trying to put my best foot forward get my name out there, not only as a hockey player, but (with) my work ethic. Right now, it's that time for fine-tuning."
Based on his debut last season, Ford doesn't need all that much tinkering. He stormed out of the University of Wisconsin, scored 2 goals in his first pro game at Florida and tore off an 11-game points streak (19 points) to start the season. He paced the Checkers with a plus-19 rating and was MVP of the 2009 all-star game (3 goals, 1 assist).
He was clearly hungry, a self-described huge carnivore. Of course, that may have stemmed from his culinary habit - disgusting to teammates - of wolfing down steak cooked as rare as possible.
Ford acknowledged that is an acquired taste, and not necessarily for everyone. More often, he'll whip up some Mexican cuisine, a specialty he honed growing up near LA.
"When I would go home, there was nothing better than home cooking. You had to learn the recipes, so you could make it while you were away," Ford said.
Lots of things are handed down in the Ford family, including the talent most dear to him now. Ford's grandfather is from Toronto, and his dad and three of his uncles grew up playing hockey. John's transplant to the West Coast didn't mean that love was going to get left behind.
John is a former goalie, and his early battles with Matthew continue to this day.
"I still can't score on him today. He knows all my moves," Matthew said. "We have one little (hockey) tradition. After every scrimmage, we do a best-of-three shootout. I rarely win the shootout."
While dad followed his work westward, Matthew went the opposite direction. He played high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, then skated with the Badgers. Although his third-line role there had its rewards -- he won a national title in 2006-07 -- sparkling numbers weren't among them.
"Whether you stay there or don't stay there, you have to do your thing. I'm trying to put my best foot forward get my name out there, not only as a hockey player, but (with) my work ethic. Right now, it's that time for fine-tuning." - Matthew Ford
He potted 21 goals combined in four seasons there, making his points splash with the Checkers last year even more eye-catching.
"The goal-scoring was certainly a surprise. I think what helped him a lot when he got to our level was he was so good on the defensive side of the puck, he creates his own chances. His motor runs 100 percent from the drop of the puck to the end of the game," said Charlotte coach Derek Wilkinson
"I think I jumped at the opportunity. That was the biggest thing," Ford said of his accelerated evolution. "I had an opportunity to play a more offensive role last year. I knew I could score. The style of play worked my way in Charlotte. It's pretty cool to have all these opportunities at once."
The chance that Ford really targets is still out there, waiting to pop up and be grabbed. Ford spent four months in a Hartford hotel last season, auditioning for the Wolf Pack. Somewhere, anywhere, he knows there's a more stable address his for the taking in an AHL neighborhood.
"I have to do my thing. If I play my game, there's a good chance of having success," he said. "It's my second year. The second time around, when I get my opportunity, I'll make the most of it."