Winning is contagious and, since his days at the famed Shattuck - St. Mary’s High School, Matt Ford has been bred for success.
But gaining access to facilities and having ice time to be able to improve his game wasn’t always a luxury for the California-born Ford.
“(Playing at Shattuck) was an opportunity to be on the ice everyday, the opportunity that maybe California kids get now a days, but at the time it was a two-hour drive every day for my parents to get me to go skate.”
At 14-years-old, hockey’s elite surrounded Ford. Not only was he playing with top prospects and prodigies (think Sidney Crosby and Drew Stafford), his mentors and coaches were irreplaceable influences on the type of player and person, the right-winger would eventually become.
“ J.P. Parisé, was a big part of putting that program together (St. Mary’s). When I first came in he was the bantam coach,” Ford said.
He reminisced about the influence that the 14-year NHL veteran had on him as a young player.
“He just recently passed away (Parisé died January 7, of lung cancer at the age of 73) so all those memories are really fresh,” Ford said.
“I’ll always remember that he would say he wanted us to be good hockey players but wanted us to be better people. And I think that just preaches what Shattuck’s all about.”
From hockey prep school to a member of the NCAA DI elite, Ford would again be teamed up with players destined to make an impact in the NHL as well as internationally.
Photo by Getty Images
In 2005-06, Ford’s sophomore campaign as a member of the Wisconsin Badgers, his team won top honours and took the NCAA DI hockey title.
Joining Ford on that roster was Brian Elliot (he had a 1.55 GAA that year and was named AHCA West First-Team All-American), former Oiler and currently a defenceman on the Montreal Canadiens Tom Gilbert, and Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks, to name a few.
“I think we had a lot of individuals that were really talented but what really bonded us was that we knew we all had roles within the team. Not all of us were going to be super stars, some of us have to play roles.”
For Ford, his role throughout his career has changed and evolved periodically depending on the situation, But in college the forward found his niche as a two-way grinder.
“I was more of the supporting cast,” said Ford. “I didn’t chip in offensively as much, but I knew when my opportunity to play came that I needed to be solid. I learned a lot at Wisconsin about my defensive game in terms of blocking shots and taking care of the puck. It’s not always about those high-risk offensive plays and I think it was one of the biggest things I took away from playing at Wisconsin.”
Funny enough, that mentality of being a two-way force and an effective special teams contributor (which Ford is in Oklahoma City), is exactly the M.O of coaching mentor, Parisé, while he was an active NHLer.
Not necessarily known for his scoring touch, but for being highly effective in his ice time and able to capitalize on chances to put the puck in the net when the opportunity arises.
And just like his former coach, Ford seems to have hit his stride after working for a few years as a pro.
Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons
In his two years with OKC, Ford has 99 points (44 goals) and recorded career-high 52 points season.
Because of his pedigree and accomplishments, Ford is able to use his veteran status to show younger guys what it takes to be successful at a high level.
“I do think I’m brought in to show (how to) play the right way,” said Ford. “I think one of the reasons I’ve had success down here (OKC) is being a professional. We talk about it as a group and you look at some of the other leaders here as well.”
Ford added, “The reason I’m still able to play in the AHL is because I try to contribute on both ends of the rink. I do get time on the PP and the PK and I think that just comes down to working hard.”
Setting an example both on and off the ice is what makes Ford such a valuable member of the Barons organization. His post-season and championship experience becomes that much more pertinent this year as OKC gears up for the final playoff run as a member of the Oklahoma community.
“We’re excited about the group we have, and (to) get some of our call ups back from the Oilers. Even though we’ve struggled of late I’m confident in this group. We’ve put together some good hockey through the season, and it would be fun to do something for the fans here in OKC.”
The plan, as of now, is to get back to the basics and become more consistent in doing the things that made OKC, for a time, the best team in the AHL.
“I think our bread and butter is working hard on the forecheck. That’s been OKC’s go-to every year (and) it’s brought them success. If we’re hounding pucks and working hard were going to give ourselves a chance against any team, and were gonna make ‘em work.”
The Barons will begin their playoff push against the third-seeded San Antonio Rampage on April 23, at the Cox Convention Center in Oklahoma City, in a best of five series. The hope, to bring the Calder Cup to Oklahoma for the first and final time in franchise history, before the Oilers AHL affiliate makes a move to Bakersfield.
Bakersfield, which is in California, and ironically where Ford’s hockey dream began.