American Hockey League

‘Realistic’ Ford a mentor for young Griffins

Matt Ford paused for 10 seconds upon hearing the question:

What would be the most exciting part about making the NHL?

Playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League, one stop short of the show, you might think Ford ponders that question often. His long search for an answer suggested the opposite.

Ford, the captain of the Detroit Red Wings’ AHL affiliate, has more than paid his dues, logging 709 pro games over 11 seasons for teams in nine cities through Friday. At 34, he is the oldest AHL player who has never reached the NHL.

“I don’t think that (NHL) dream ever goes away,” Ford said. “I’m also realistic about it.”

He has an interesting hockey background, a California kid who was linemates with Sidney Crosby in high school and won a national championship in college. He’s also an important figure in the Red Wings’ organization, helping the next wave of young talent rise through a rebuild.

There’s a reason Ford has skated in one of the world’s top professional leagues for this long — with no end in sight.

“I want to play as long as I can until they pretty much tell me, ‘No,’ ” he said. “And I don’t see that drive and fire and love of coming to the rink every day going away. … I don’t see that changing right now.”

‘No guarantees’

Ford recalls being on the doorstep of the NHL. And how quickly it slipped away.

It was 2011 and Ford, a former eighth-round pick, had signed his first two-way contract with the Washington Capitals. He would turn 27 that fall, during his fourth pro season. Being on a two-way deal meant he could be recalled from the AHL affiliate in Hershey, Pennsylvania, at any time.

“As you know, there’s no guarantees,” he said. “In hockey or anything.”

The setup was great. Hershey was at the top of the league and Ford was a consistent contributor, with 28 points in 39 games. He’d come a long way from his start in the East Coast Hockey League, where he made $2,000 per month on week-to-week contracts. The next step was to get a call from the parent club.

“Midway through the year, (Hershey) asked me if I wanted to come back and I said, ‘I love it here,’ ” Ford said. “‘I just want to play one NHL game.’”

One game. Just to check the box and defy the odds. But the Capitals were deep at the forward position, so they traded him to Philadelphia’s AHL affiliate in Glens Falls, New York, where his chances for a call-up were expected to improve.

He finished the year on a tear with the now-defunct Adirondack Flames, averaging a point per game in 31 games. Still, no promotion. Ford was, however, a “Black Ace” for the Flyers in the playoffs. That meant he was on the team’s extended playoff roster and could be brought up to replace an injured player.

That didn’t happen, but Ford held out hope that the 2012-13 season would be his time. An NHL lockout ruined his chance to make the Flyers out of camp, then a poor showing in Adirondack (13 points in 35 games) sealed his fate.

His two-way contract expired at the end of that year and there were no suitors to offer the 28-year-old another one. His NHL window had closed as quickly as it had opened, so he signed an AHL deal with the Oklahoma City Barons.

“I kind of shifted at that point, I guess,” Ford said, “to being more of a guy that was gonna help the American Hockey League team win and be a mentor to these younger guys.”

The California kid and Sid the Kid

Ford’s hockey lineage goes like this: In the early 1960s, his grandfather Bill moved with four hockey-playing sons out of Toronto and into West Hills, California.

One of those sons, John, found his way into the now-defunct Pacific Southwest Hockey League, where he played at a semi-pro level for little more than beer money on the weekends.

Then along came Matt, John’s son, who grew up in L.A. as Wayne Gretzky’s arrival gave way to a regional hockey movement. But Matt was already moved by the sport he’d proudly watched his father play.

By the time Ford reached his teens, his family looked for a prep school that offered daily ice time — there wasn’t anything like that in California. He settled on Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a small boarding school in Faribault, Minnesota.

Ford worked his way up to the school’s top team by his senior year. It was then that a rather famous 15-year-old joined the squad and skated on his line.

“All we (had) heard about was this highly touted kid from Nova Scotia that everybody labeled the next Wayne Gretzky,” Ford said.

A pubescent Sidney Crosby was the first player Ford saw on a pro trajectory. At the time, Ford was just concerned with reaching the college level. He and teammate Brian Salcido wrote letters to every Division I team trying to make that happen.

Ford generated some college interest at Shattuck, but decided to go to the United States Hockey League — the top junior league in the country — for a season to boost his stock. He won rookie of the year, tallying a league-high 37 goals, and wound up at Wisconsin. The Blackhawks drafted Ford that spring, two picks ahead of eventual-Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne, now one of the NHL’s premier goaltenders.

At that point, Ford set his sights on turning pro. But first, he had to adjust to the college game. Most college forwards played in top-six roles at the junior level, but there are only so many of those spots to go around. Ford understood that and found most of his glory with big hits and blocked shots. He was never the star, scoring only 21 goals in 124 career games, but he shared the success — including a national championship run his sophomore year.

“The thing about Matty on a team is that he was willing to accept his role,” former Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. “What made him a great teammate is that he was willing to do that…I’m sure it’s one of the reasons of his longevity in the pro level.”

Ford left Wisconsin with NCAA championship ring, a degree in consumer science and a heart set on pro hockey. Oh, and a serious girlfriend.

Long distance and going the distance

As Cassie Ford remembers it, she and Matt met in a math class during their first semester at Wisconsin. Well, “met” might not be the right word. She sat in the row in front of him, but they only communicated by exchanging smiles.

“And I would like, awkwardly, pretend to look back at the clock,” Cassie said. “Like all the time. Just to catch a little glance.”

The two formally met at the end of the year, at Wisconsin’s annual Mifflin Street Block Party, and later began their relationship.

Upon graduation in 2008, Cassie moved to Charlotte, where her parents lived, to begin working at Fannie Mae. Matt, meanwhile, was left unsigned by Chicago, so he followed Cassie and embarked on his career with the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers.

Matt scored 21 goals in 28 games with the Checkers, good enough to earn a professional tryout contract with the New York Rangers’ AHL team, the Hartford Wolf Pack. At the end of that contract, which lasted 25 games, he bounced to the Lake Erie Monsters, the AHL-affiliate for the Colorado Avalanche. Then he made the Monsters out of camp the following year.

Those moves quickly forced Matt and Cassie into a long-distance relationship. Technology helped, as 30-60 minutes of video chatting became a nightly staple. Their time was limited and they spent it talking about anything other than hockey.

In the summer of 2011, Cassie’s job prompted them to move to Dallas. But Matt lived elsewhere during the season.

“It was awful,” Cassie said. “But at the end of the day we knew that we were in it for the long haul.”

They sealed that commitment on June 29, 2012, with a wedding held in Charlotte. They were engaged the previous summer and had initially decided not to get married until they could live together year-round. But when Cassie’s father suddenly fell ill, they changed their plans.

Unfortunately, he died a couple months before the ceremony. But in a period of deep mourning, their wedding meant that much more.

“It wasn’t how we had planned it,” Cassie said. “But it was exactly what we needed at the time.”

That fall, they were back to long distance as Ford began is second stint in Adirondack. Things got a little easier the next season when he joined Oklahoma City (Edmonton’s AHL affiliate) because it was only a three-hour drive from Dallas.

Their big break came in 2015, when Cassie was granted flexibility to work remotely. The Barons relocated to Bakersfield, California, meaning Matt would be back near his family for the first time since he was 14.

It was at that point when Matt and Cassie decided they wanted a family of their own. On June 27, 2016, Bennett Ford was born.

“So, like nine months from the day we got to California,” Cassie said, laughing.  

Now, Matt’s family is at the forefront of his career decisions. Part of choosing to play in Grand Rapids, what he calls a “little big city,” was that he felt comfortable moving his family there.

Though Bennett is only 2, he is already “obsessed” with hockey, according to Cassie. He’s on the ice a couple times a week and plays with mini sticks in the house with roller blades on.

Bennett also gets to watch his dad play — just like Matt did in his childhood.

“Some day (I’ll) be able to look back on it,” Ford said. “And (see) that my son would be proud to know that maybe his dad didn’t play in the NHL, but played pro hockey. And that’d be cool.”

‘Keeping it light’ and doing it the hard way

He won’t admit to all of them, and he might even try to pin some on his teammates, but Ford has pulled off quite a number of pranks in his career.

With any of his stunts, Ford has a catch phrase to remind others that he means no ill intent. He’s said it so many times, in fact, that he doesn’t even realize it anymore.

“I guess the phrase that I always say and (my teammate) told me I’ll be remembered by is, ‘I’m keeping it light,’” Ford said. “I’d say that’s what those guys think I’m summed up by.”

Of course, life in the AHL is not all fun and games. It can be quite the grind, as many players fight for their livelihood, or at least for a promotion. Handling that pressure is something Ford sees as a challenge, particularly for young prospects.

“Those young guys, they live and die with the highs and lows,” Ford said.

He used the example of Filip Zadina, Detroit’s top pick from the 2018 draft. Zadina came to the Griffins as an 18-year-old, living on his own for the first time. Ford said Zadina’s skill with the puck was always there, but through the year he matured in how he plays without the puck — as well as how he manages the peaks and valleys of a long season.

In some ways, Ford is sort of a player/coach. That’s not a bad gig for his salary of roughly $200,000 per year, which he says is on par with most veteran AHLers. This season, he has played in 61 games and has scored 24 points. 

“You can still make a pretty good living (as a) minor league hockey player and have fun doing it,” said Ben Simon, the head coach of the Griffins. “(Ford) understands the importance that teams in the American league put on development and how important and integral it is to have good older guys.”

On his current AHL contract, which runs through next season, Ford cannot be called up to the NHL. In all likelihood, he never will be.

But he still has a wealth of knowledge about what it takes to be a pro and stay a pro. He knows how to handle highs and lows. He understands the strain of a long-distance relationship and spending significant time away from a young child. He has scraped and fought and hung in long enough to turn a minor league hockey career into a sustainable lifestyle that can support his family.

Newcomers in Grand Rapids have a lot to learn. And Ford has a lot to teach.

“The reason why Matt’s played so long is he has good character,” Todd Nelson, Ford’s former coach in Oklahoma City and Grand Rapids, said. “He did it the hard way, so he understands.”

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