During his 4 years at the University of Wisconsin, forward Matthew Ford
was used in a defensive capacity and tallied just 39 points.
My, how times have changed.
The 24-year-old rookie is off to a torrid start with the Charlotte Checkers, as he ranks second among ECHL first-year players with 8 points (5 goals, 3 assists) in just 4 games.
That's right -- 4 games into his professional career, Ford has racked up nearly one-fifth of his total collegiate output.
"It's just getting a fresh start and a change of scenery," Ford told NHL.com. "I kind of got into a role there. I had some great coaching, but I kind of had a different role when I was playing at Wisconsin. The opportunity presented itself here and I have the chance to play a different style."
Ford's knack for the net has paid huge dividends for the Checkers, who started the 2008-09 season by playing their first 6 games on the road -- and won 4 of them.
"He's off to a tremendous start," Checkers coach Derek Wilkinson
said. "He's a fantastic kid. He's a real hard worker who came from some great programs. He's obviously has been well coached. He seems to know the game well, and he's also incredibly competitive."
Ford certainly has an intriguing background. The 6-foot-1, 207-pounder grew up in West Hills, Calif., just outside Los Angeles. His father, John Ford, is an Ontario native who played semipro hockey on the West Coast. It was his dad's passion for the game that was ultimately passed down to Ford, who played high school hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary's -- the same place where NHL stars such as Sidney Crosby
and Jonathan Toews
honed their skills.
During the offseason, Ford enjoys returning to his native state to skate with his father, who is a goaltender. That's right -- dad still throws on the pads and gets between the pipes despite being in his early 50s.
"I went to Shattuck-St. Mary's and got to play with some really good players there," Ford said. "But probably what kept me going when things were rough was getting to go home and play with my old man. He still plays. During the summer, I spend about a month and a half at home and get together with some of his buddies. They're in their 50s, but they can still play hockey. At 53, my old man can still stop a puck on me. When I can start scoring on him, I know something's going right."
Things are definitely going right for Ford in Charlotte. The former Badger attributed much of his fast start to his veteran teammates, including 30-year-old Mike Bayrack
, who has 1 goal and 4 assists in 5 games.
"A lot of credit goes to the older guys on this team," Ford said. "The veterans we have really got the rookies on page right away. They led by example. It's a testament to who they are.
"I've been able to put the puck in the net. It's a little bit different. I didn't score a ton of goals in college, so getting that scoring going again is kind of exciting."
Rookies who can play the game at both ends of the rink are rare at the ECHL level, which means that Ford's stay in Charlotte may be temporary. An eighth-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks
in 2004, Ford is currently under contract only with the Checkers. Wilkinson believes his ability to play a solid defensive game will improve Ford's chances of a promotion to the American Hockey League.
"Most guys come into this league and have to learn how to play defense. He's already got that down," said Wilkinson, noting that Ford‘s plus-5 rating leads the club. "Nobody really knew how good his offense could be. His skating or his offensive ability haven't been an issue at this point."
But if the AHL doesn't come calling this season or even next, Wilkinson believes Ford could take on a leadership role rather quickly in Charlotte.
"He doesn't have your textbook skating stride, but he certainly skates well," Wilkinson said. "I'll tell you, what a great character kid. If he doesn't make the American League and spends another season in Charlotte, he's a captain-type kid. There's just a whole bunch to like about him."
"I'm happy for this opportunity and want to see where it can go. With some good coaching and some hard work, you never know what can happen." -- Matthew Ford
Ford had a whole bunch to like about playing at Wisconsin, which featured a national championship his sophomore year (2005-06). That phenomenal club boasted NHL players such as Joe Pavelski
, Adam Burish
and Tom Gilbert
. Undoubtedly, Ford will have stories to share for the rest of his life.
"I learned a lot," Ford said of his Wisconsin days. "I kind of had a different role and learned the defensive side of the game. I had the best four years of my life there."
Now, Ford hopes to begin a new path that will lead to a career in the NHL. While he's focused on the task at hand in Charlotte, one has to wonder if the ECHL is merely a stepping stone.
"I've never really put too much thought into that," Ford said. "I think things will take care of itself. I hope to have that opportunity, but while I'm here I just want to help this team win. That's my main focus right now.
"I'm happy for this opportunity and want to see where it can go. With some good coaching and some hard work, you never know what can happen."
Contact Brian Compton at: firstname.lastname@example.org.