by Chad Hudson || AHL On The Beat Archive
Every athlete dreams of reaching the pinnacle of his or her sport: to play at the highest level with the best players in the world.
When it comes to hockey, Sidney Crosby is considered to be the best player on the planet. How does it feel when you get to play alongside Sidney Crosby? How many players can say they have been on the ice with some of the game’s most elite players?
Oklahoma City Barons forward Matthew Ford was Sidney Crosby’s linemate. He can say the same of Sean Couturier and Brayden Schenn of the Philadelphia Flyers, as well as Drew Stafford of the Buffalo Sabres.
But Ford has never skated in a National Hockey League game. At least not yet. Ford played with those players, and countless others, in high school, college and earlier in his professional hockey career.
Ford was raised in West Hills, Calif., but moved to Faribault, Minn., to play hockey at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a highly touted prep school. While there, Ford played with Crosby, Stafford, Zach Parise, Jack Johnson, Ben Eaves and Patrick Eaves, and was one year removed from playing with Jonathan Toews.
After his high school career, Ford went on to play hockey at the University of Wisconsin. There, the list only grew. As a Badger, he played with future NHL’ers like Joe Pavelski, Ryan McDonagh, Adam Burish, Tom Gilbert, Brian Elliott, Kyle Turris, Jamie McBain and Jack Skille.
Ford won a national championship in 2006 with many of those players. Still, Ford is determined to join them once again – this time as an opponent, playing at the peak of the hockey world.
The major difference, according to Ford, is simple: one step.
“Things are just one step quicker [in the NHL] and being able to work with [those guys in the offseason] helps me prepare and realize what it takes to play at that level,” Ford said.
For Ford, that means working hard to better his game, something he saw from an early age that separates the best players in the world. He watched Crosby, at 15 years old, put in the hard work that laid the foundation for his illustrious career.
“When you’re in high school you don’t know if guys were going to play Division I college, let alone be stars in the NHL like he turned out to be,” Ford said. “I think when you look at [Crosby’s] game, what I was so impressed with, even at that young age, is his ability to get the puck on his tape.”
Ford was an early witness to the coaching cliche: “You can’t make a bad pass to a great player.”
“It was so true with him. Playing on a line with Crosby, you could throw the puck anywhere within a 10-foot radius of him and he was able to keep going full speed, get the puck on his stick and attack,” Ford said.
The touting of Crosby began earlier than that age, but while at Shattuck-St. Mary’s Ford said they would travel to games against teams that had banners of Crosby hanging, touting him as “the next Wayne Gretzky.”
These experiences now are memories of the past. What Ford is focused on are his future and making it to the NHL. He knows the work that must be put in to get there and that is why he spends his summers training, as well as attending a pro camp at his alma mater.
That one-step difference is something Ford takes literally, as he works on his skating more than anything.
“One of the things I can always do to get better is (improve) my skating,” he said. “I think everyone can, but I know that’s one of my skills where, whether it’s being stronger on the puck or just getting up and down the ice, I’m always conscious of working on.”
The work you put in is a lot easier when you have a passion for what you are doing. Ford can thank his father and grandfather for instilling that passion early. His grandfather started a youth hockey program in California and his father played semi-pro.
“I got a lot of my passion just from the love of the sport that both my grandfather and my dad have for it,” Ford said.
For now, his passion lies in Oklahoma City. Through hard work, preparation and one more step, his passion could be reunited with the abundance of stars he once called teammates.
This time, though, he will have to settle in as an opponent.