Matt Ford enjoyed a storybook year as he welcomed a new baby, a new team and a new trophy into his life.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
“Winning isn’t everything – it’s the only thing” is a quote often attributed to Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s, but it’s a philosophy that has been endorsed and embraced by coaches and players in all sports.
At the age of 33, Matt Ford knows what winning is all about. After being part of national championships in high school and college, Ford helped the Griffins capture their second Calder Cup in five seasons.
Although drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks in 2004, Ford has spent his entire professional career in the minor leagues, never getting an opportunity at the NHL beyond a handful of exhibition games.
“As a kid, my goal was always to play in the NHL,” Ford said in the dressing room following the Red Wings’ annual Red and White Game this fall. “After winning the Calder Cup, I wondered if I would be willing to trade that experience for a few games in the NHL, and I don’t think I would trade it for anything. That’s how special it was.”
That admission speaks to his love of the sport, a feeling that was passed on to him while he was growing up in California.
His grandfather, Bill, grew up playing hockey in Glencoe, Ontario. “He had four boys who all played hockey and when they were still young, he moved his family from Toronto to Los Angeles,” Ford recalled. “He was a big part of starting the youth hockey program there.”
His father, John, played goalie for the semi-pro Los Angeles Bruins and still puts on the pads at the age of 62.
“The passion that my dad has for the game was instilled in me at an early age,” Ford said. “When my dad was still playing semi-pro hockey, I was running around with a mini stick in the locker room after the games.”
The Fords, it appears, were always super competitive. “At a very young age, everything turned into a game, so to this day, my dad never lets me score,” he said. “Whenever I go back, other players give me a hard time because I probably go harder in those games than I even do in practice here.”
His parents – his dad and mother (Kasey) both worked for the airlines – always cheered his efforts.
“Being an only child, my parents provided me with unbelievable opportunities to get where I am today,” Ford said. “Both of them worked long hours and as soon as they got home, we’d jump in the car and drive across Los Angeles to play hockey. Sometimes we would fly out of state for tournaments. I owe everything to them.”
He left California to attend Shattuck-St. Mary’s Prep, a boarding school in Minnesota that is well-known for its hockey program. As a senior, his teammates included future NHLers Jack Johnson and Drew Stafford, as well as a 15-year-old sophomore from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, named Sidney Crosby.
“At that age in high school, none of us knew if we were going to play Division I hockey, let alone play in the National Hockey League, and here was this young kid who was getting hyped as the next Wayne Gretzky,” Ford said.
“It was obvious that he was the real deal. Playing on the same line, I probably learned as much from this 15-year-old as some of the pros with whom I later played. Obviously he had a ton of skill, but you also saw how hard he worked. He was a competitor.
“It was easy playing with him because you could throw a puck anywhere within 10 feet of him, and he’d catch it going full speed. Even at a young age, you could see there was something special about him.”
Ford’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s squad captured the 2003 USA Hockey Midget AAA national championship in Laurel, Md. A successful season at the junior level followed, with Ford being named USHL Rookie of the Year when he recorded 68 points (37 goals, 31 assists) in 60 games for the Sioux Falls Stampede.
He was chosen by the Chicago Blackhawks in the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft the following June.
“The Blackhawks were probably my dad’s favorite team growing up, so it was pretty exciting to be drafted by an Original Six team with so much history,” Ford said. “They were still struggling at the time, so they had a ton of draft picks – I was their 16th pick – but I don’t think I was ready, not even for the AHL at the time.”
Ford was recruited to play hockey at the University of Wisconsin, where he learned to adjust to a new role.
“I had always been more of an offensive player, but I had to play more of a depth role due to how much skill we had on the team,” he said, noting that fully half of the Badger team – 10 skaters plus goalie Brian Elliott – would eventually play in the NHL.
“We had really good leadership and I learned how to play the right way, how to be a good teammate,” he continued. “The ultimate goal was to win a national championship – that’s why I went to Wisconsin – and being part of one was pretty special.”
In 2006, Ford’s sophomore season at Wisconsin, the Badgers defeated Boston College 2-1 in the championship game to claim the NCAA title. Among the members of that team was current Griffins center Ben Street.
When Street made a recruiting trip to the college from his home in British Columbia, it was Ford who guided him around campus. The two played three years together and became good friends. Over the years, they stood up in each other’s weddings, bought homes blocks apart in Chicago, and became parents for the first time within months of each other.
It was Ford, in fact, who convinced Street to join him in Grand Rapids, giving them their first opportunity to play together since college.
While the undrafted Street has enjoyed several call-ups to the NHL, Ford has not. Although he had been drafted by Chicago, the Blackhawks never inked his name to a contract. “It was disappointing to never sign with them, but at the end of the day, things worked out for me,” Ford said.
Ford started his pro career with the Charlotte Checkers in the ECHL, where he had to prove that he could be a useful pro. “I’ve had to earn everything along the way, but I’m grateful for every opportunity I’ve been given,” he said.
He split his 2008-09 rookie season mostly between Charlotte and the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack. He tallied 21 goals in 28 ECHL contests but registered only one goal in 30 games at the AHL level. The following year, he appeared in three more games in the ECHL but showed he could contribute in the AHL by recording 13 goals and 14 assists for the Lake Erie Monsters.
“During my professional career, I’ve had different priorities at different times,” he said. “When I was young, it was about making it in the American Hockey League. It took me almost a full season in the East Coast league, but I made Lake Erie the next year out of camp on a tryout and played a couple of seasons in Cleveland.”
Ford worked his way into becoming a prospect, albeit an older one.
“I kept re-adjusting my goals,” he said. “My next goal was to give myself a chance to play in the NHL, and Washington gave me that opportunity by signing me to my first NHL contract. I eventually moved on to Philadelphia’s organization because I kept pursuing that goal.”
After Lake Erie, Ford played for the Hershey Bears, Adirondack Phantoms and Springfield Falcons. Eventually, he would play for nine different teams in nine seasons. “I kept looking for new opportunities,” he said. “As I got older, the goal turned into putting myself into situations at the AHL level where I could win and things would be good for my family.”
He ended up in Oklahoma City for the 2013-14 season because it put him closer to his wife, Cassie, who was living in Dallas at the time. He had heard good things about the Barons’ coach, Todd Nelson, who was entering his fourth season in Oklahoma City.
“I was looking for something new again,” he said. “I needed a change and every time I asked other players about Todd Nelson, I heard nothing but rave reviews, so I was excited when they gave me a chance to stay in the AHL.”
Ford came away impressed by Nelson’s ability to turn a struggling team into a playoff-qualifying unit.
“He showed a ton of patience with the young guys,” Ford said. “He let guys make mistakes, but by the end of the year, we had a pretty good run to make the playoffs. From the way we started the season to the way we finished was completely different.”
Ford was excited to return to the Barons for a second season, but 25 games into the year, Nelson became the interim head coach of the Edmonton Oilers. “Selfishly, I would have loved if Nellie had stayed in Oklahoma City, but you’re always happy when another player or coach gets the opportunity to go up to the NHL.”
When the Barons became the Bakersfield Condors two seasons ago, Ford was excited to get the chance to play in his home state, but after one season there, he found himself again hungering for a new setting. He wanted to play for an organization that preached winning.
He knew just the place.
Coming to Grand Rapids appealed to him because he could rejoin Nelson, his former coach who was beginning his second season as the head coach of the Griffins. The winning philosophy espoused by the Red Wings organization was equally attractive.
“Both Grand Rapids and Detroit have had some really good teams in recent years, so when I joined this organization, I came here with the idea that this would give me the best chance to win, which I felt was the ultimate reason to make the move,” he said.
Ford injured himself during the first day of practice and sat out the first month of the season with a lower body injury. “You want to put your best foot forward when you’re with a new team and I felt like I was on the outside looking in,” he said. “But from Day 1, you could tell we had a special group.”
When Ford finally got back into action, he wasted little time in establishing a place in the lineup. He eventually settled into playing on the team’s fourth line with Colin Campbell and rookie Dominic Turgeon. He also filled a net-front position on one of the Griffins’ power play units and was one of the team’s key penalty killers.
“Nellie is really good at finding the right minutes for players,” Ford said. “He knows how to put players in a position to have success.”
Ford relished his time on the fourth line. “Playing with Turgeon and Campbell down the stretch, our mindset was to be the best fourth line in the AHL,” he said. “No matter the line we were playing against, we were going to be tough. In the end, Nellie had us going against Syracuse’s top line.”
His first season with the Griffins was memorable to say the least. A couple of months before coming to Grand Rapids, Ford and his wife welcomed the birth of their son, Bennett.
“We’d been excited about becoming parents for a long time,” said Ford, who celebrated his fifth anniversary with Cassie a day after Bennett’s first birthday this past June. “Obviously, I knew life would never be the same, but it’s all for the better. Having him around has been really enjoyable.”
He hopes he will someday have the same influence on Bennett that his father had on him.
“I’ll never push it on Bennett, but if he has the same itch and develops the same passion to play hockey, I think that would be pretty special,” Ford said. “He has fun already going into our locker room with the boys, and I think it’ll be fun to see him running around with a mini stick, hitting the guys in the shins this year.”
Ford jokes that he came to Grand Rapids because he would no longer be the old guy, deferring that honor to then-captain Nathan Paetsch, who was 18 months his elder and would become someone from whom he learned much.
“He was a unifying force and really brought our team together,” Ford said. “He treated everyone the same, whether you were a 30-goal scorer or one of the extras. He talked to guys so they knew their roles, and he knew how to keep them going even when they were down.”
Ford felt the Griffins had the makings of something special. “From the get-go, we knew we had a good team, from the veterans who had been through it all to a group of rookies who were really mature,” he said. “As a whole, we pushed each other, which made for an exciting year.”
Like many of his teammates, Ford managed to elevate his play during the Griffins’ pursuit of the Calder Cup. He scored eight goals in 19 games, matching the total tallied by his pal Street, and his six power play goals led the league.
Ford played a pivotal role in the decisive Game 6 of the Calder Cup Finals. With the Griffins down 1-0 late in the first period, he delivered a big hit on Syracuse’s Adam Erne that was a momentum changer, then he scored the Griffins’ first goal on the power play in the opening minute of the second period.
“We talked as a group how we wanted to be physical without retaliating,” he said. “When we were able to get under a team’s skin was when we got it going. One of the reasons I think we won is that we were able to frustrate Syracuse a little bit.”
It was fitting that Ford’s big goal came on the power play. “We knew we could beat teams 5-on-5, so if we won special teams, we knew we would win the game,” he said. “When I got the puck on my tape in the slot, I knew the whole time I was going to shoot. Their goalie may have robbed me later, but I managed to get that one by him.”
The Griffins scored twice in the third period to win the game and capture the coveted Calder Cup. It was the team’s third come-from-behind victory in the Finals and its sixth comeback overall in the playoffs.
“There was never any panic,” he said. “We knew we had the guys there to get it done. There was a confidence within the group all year. It was one guy after another… I could list every guy on the team. Winning the Cup doesn’t happen without the whole group.”
Ford will never forget being on the ice for the closing seconds of the game.
“That was the biggest moment I’ve ever been in – it was crazy,” he said. “I’ve played in bigger buildings, but that was the loudest I’ve ever experienced. You could feel every single fan out of the nearly 11,000 in attendance.
“At the same time, there was so much focus within our team that there was a sense of calm, even when there was that scramble in front of the net in the closing seconds. Just talking about it puts a smile on my face.”
Last season saw Ford play his 500th AHL game, an achievement that he embraces. “The AHL is a really good hockey league, and I take great pride that I’ve been able to play in it as long as I have,” he said. “I think I still have a good handful of years left in me.”
He is content, knowing his chance to play in the NHL has likely passed.
“You have to be ready when opportunity knocks, and I think I missed my chance at that window in time,” he said. “I may always have a small regret that I don’t have an NHL game in my books, but I thought about it after we won the Cup this year and I couldn’t be happier.
“Grand Rapids so far represents only one year in my whole pro career, but with the amount of memories we’ve already made, we feel like we’ve found a new home.”