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#AHLOTB: Who says you can’t go home?

by Ryan Holt | AHL On The Beat Archive

Fans in Bakersfield are certainly excited about the arrival of the American Hockey League in Condorstown. But, from a player’s standpoint, veteran winger Matthew Ford may just be the leader in the excitement clubhouse.

“It’s been 17 years since I played in California,” said Ford, who turned 31 years old on opening night. “I left when I was 14, but I’m anxious to get back.”

Ford’s path to a lengthy professional hockey career was not easy. He grew up in West Hills, Calif., on the outskirts of Los Angeles, but was fortunate to be born into a hockey family.

His grandfather, Bill, moved the family from Toronto to Southern California with four hockey-crazed sons, including Matt’s father, John, who had been on skates since he could walk. Hockey in L.A. was still a very novice idea 50 years ago. Sure, there had been teams in the Pacific Coast Hockey League and Western Hockey League, but it wasn’t until the Los Angeles Kings arrived in 1967 that the area had a true big-league hockey team to call its own.

Youth hockey was almost non-existent. Bill got to work and founded Bay Harbor, one of the oldest minor hockey associations in the area. Located in Harbor City, the program was in the shadows of the forum blue and gold of the Kings just down the road.

Flash forward to 1988 and a man by the name of Wayne Gretzky burst on the scene in a trade with the Edmonton Oilers. Ford was 4 at the time and just starting out on what would turn into 26 years of playing the sport he loves.

With minor hockey still to be established, Ford found a home with the Marina City Sharks and the West Valley Wolves (now California Heat), based in Panorama City, just on the other side of the grapevine from Kern County.

“It was a lot of traveling to practice and games,” Ford explained. “But my family was passionate about the game. I can remember that there were two kids from Bakersfield who would drive down to play on our bantam team because there was nothing in that area at the time.”

Then there was the whole notion of getting respect on the ice.

“It was tough getting noticed. We would go to these elite tournaments in Minnesota and Canada and teams thought that playing the team from California was a joke, that it was their night off. We turned heads though and now I don’t think California teams are taken lightly whatsoever.”

Individually, Ford turned heads enough to earn an opportunity at Shattuck-St. Mary’s in Minnesota, one of the most prestigious and notable hockey prep schools in the country.

He was drafted in the eighth round of the 2004 NHL Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks, a rare feat at the time for a Californian born and bred.

“It was still a shock at the time for Californians to be drafted. Now, NHL draft picks from California happen year after year and with bigger numbers and nobody blinks an eye.”

After Shattuck’s and a stop in the United States Hockey League, it was off to the University of Wisconsin, where Ford won an NCAA Frozen Four championship in 2006 as a sophomore.

And now after seven professional seasons and over 400 games at the AHL level, Ford gets to come back to where it all began: California.

“Family and friends have been excited that I’m coming back to play in California. There have been non-stop texts about the schedule, about the team, and anticipation for the season. Even me, I like seeing the pictures of the construction and the updates on the changes happening.”

One of Ford’s biggest passions is traveling, whether it’s to his family in California or to his wife’s family in North Carolina or where he recently bought a house in Chicago. When he does come home to California during the summers, the changes in the hockey culture from when he grew up to the present day have been drastic.

“It’s grown exponentially out here. Really, it is a credit to the professional teams out here, like Bakersfield, that have grown the game over the years. The game’s grown in baby steps with each year. It seems like someone is breaking new ground each season.”

The numbers reflect the growth of the game in the Golden State as well. According to USA Hockey Magazine, California currently ranks sixth in registered players within USA Hockey, growing from 11,393 in the 2003-04 season to 26,383 last year, dramatically outpacing the national growth rate. During the same time, the number of Californians playing Division I college hockey has nearly doubled from 89 to 179.

Within the last year, Bakersfield had its first local product, Brayden Watts, selected in the Western Hockey League (WHL) at 15 years old with the Moose Jaw Warriors. He grew up playing in the Bakersfield Dragons program, with many former Condors at the helm as coaches and instructors.

Now Ford is anticipating ushering in a new era of Condors hockey and taking the game to the next level.

“I’ve learned that the best way to lead is to take care of yourself. We have a good corps of guys that have had success together.”

And for the group, the message comes from the top and trickles down from day one.

“We work hard and play the right way. It’s what the coaching staff preaches. Everyone enjoys coming to the rink every day. Obviously, winning is important for that, but we have a group that enjoys being around each other.”

Ford is a player the Condors will depend on this season for his veteran presence and versatility on a game night.

“Turnover is big at this level, but once you get everyone up to speed, everything starts clicking. Whatever my role is, I want to work hard at it. I know I can be moved up and down the lineup depending on who is here, so whatever the role is on a given day, I accept.”