Matthew Ford doesn't need Thanksgiving Day to remind himself how thankful he is to play professional hockey.
Ford probably won't ever play in the National Hockey League, his ultimate dream. But when the Los Angeles native takes the ice for the Oklahoma City Barons on Wednesday night on the road against the Texas Stars, he'll be nearing his 300th career American Hockey League game.
“I'm not working a 9-to-5 job or going into an office sitting in a cubicle,” Ford said. “There's nothing wrong with those jobs. I see my wife's job. She puts in 50 hours a week for Fannie Mae in real estate development. She enjoys her job.
“But the reality of it is, I'm fortunate to play hockey for a living, something that has been a passion since I was a kid. Maybe I'm not playing at the level I wanted, but at the end of the day, I'd take this over anything else.”
The Barons have made the playoffs each of their first three seasons in Oklahoma City. Part of the success formula is parent club Edmonton willing to allow the Barons to sign a couple of veterans like Ford.
“Guys like him, their perseverance is why they're still making good money in this league,” said Barons coach Todd Nelson. “They had to grind their way up from the ECHL. Even though they haven't played in the NHL, it's still a good life.”
In his sixth year in the AHL, Ford, 29, is type of Triple-A veteran that earns between $100,000 and $300,000 a year.
Ford didn't turn pro until he was 23 after playing four years at Wisconsin. The Badgers won the national title in 2006, his sophomore year.
“When I came out of college, life was not easy in the East Coast Hockey League,” Ford said. “You learned by watching how other veterans played, their work ethic, the process. You quickly discovered guys can have a career down here whether they make it to the NHL or not.”
Undrafted out of college, Ford has accumulated 165 points in 292 career AHL games. This season, he's scored 10 points for the Barons, including four goals.
“It's almost like having an older brother,” said 25-year-old defenseman Brad Hunt. “You can ask him anything. He's super open to that. I can't say enough good things about him. He's a leader in the locker room, someone young guys can look up to.
“Guys like him and (Derek) Nesbitt show how hard it is to make it to the NHL. They're such good hockey players. They still work hard every day. They do it as much for the younger guys as they do it for themselves. It's just a love of the game.”
Last year Josh Green and Jonathan Cheechoo filled similar roles on a Barons team that jelled late in the season.
Having a few veterans on a young roster helps a team avoid major slumps. Once the roster settles, the Barons have a reputation for getting hot once younger players gain experience.
“He's a responsible two-way player who has a touch around the net. He's also good with his stick on deflections,” Nelson said of Ford. “I can put him on the power play, penalty kill or last seconds to protect a lead. Veterans like that are invaluable.”