It was with a big sigh of relief that Fort St. John’s AHL player Scott Ford greeted Sunday morning.
The NHL lockout was finally over, and Ford, who signed a one-year, two-way contract with the St. Louis Blues on July 1, 2012, found out he had half of a season to work his way to the top.
“We heard rumblings all week that something was going to be done and we heard there was a tentative deal in place Sunday morning. There was excitement obviously,” Ford said on Monday. “Everyone’s excited to have that opportunity. You play this game for a reason and that’s to play at the highest level in the world in the National Hockey League.”
“It gives me an opportunity and I’m excited about it,” he added. “A lot of it’s out of my control as far as the decision-making but I just have to continue to play hard and improve as a player. If that time comes to get the opportunity I’ll be ecstatic.”
In his first year with the Blues’ AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen, 33-year-old Ford was appointed captain upon his arrival last fall and began taking charge of a team that has been struggling at the bottom of the standings for a few years. Currently the Rivermen sit in second-to-last place in the AHL’s western conference with 32 points at 14-7-2-2.
There have been some breaks in the clouds.
Before the Christmas break, the Rivermen went 7-1, proving that the team does have the potential to do some damage, but the streak was short lived upon the Rivermen’s return to the ice after the holidays.
“It would’ve been nice to keep riding that momentum but we haven’t,” Ford said. “It was like we gave it a wash, and we’re back to trying to figure out what it’ll take to be successful again and it’s been frustrating.”
“Our power play’s been anemic, we haven’t been producing offensively and we need to find a way to start generating chances again.”
As captain, Ford said he always feels responsible for his team’s performance, but the end of the lockout adds a little more pressure in a few ways that are out of his control. The Rivermen lost their stars Jaden Schwartz and Ian Cole who were called up immediately after news broke that the NHL’s season was back on.
“I know it’s a trickle-down effect with the lockout, and on day one there were 90 to 100 guys recalled automatically,” he explained. “We didn’t lose a ton but we did lose a couple key components and we’re just going to have to find a way to move forward and do things collectively as a group, whether it’s defending or scoring, just finding a way to win.”
Some good news for the Rivermen is that other AHL teams have lost bigger chunks of their roster, especially the Oklahoma City Barons, the Edmonton Oilers’ farm team. They are losing stars like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Justin Schultz and Magnus Paajarvi.
“The players that are going up initially are going to be key figures in the NHL for hopefully years to come and it was great to have that experience,” Ford said, “But as far as our mindset is, our season’s still going here, and if we get that opportunity to go up we’ll put our best foot forward, whether we’re here in Peoria or get the opportunity in St. Louis."
In addition to losing players, Ford’s role as captain, as a veteran, as well as his contract with the St. Louis Blues means trying to turn the Rivermen’s season around so that individuals on the roster and the team as a unit can work at maximum capacity and get some players called up.
“It’s still the same mindset,” he said about the lockout ending. “As you get older this profession becomes your job. You go to work everyday, you do your routine, you workout, practice and try to improve, and as far as I go as captain I feel responsible for the guys here right now and for our success as a team down here.”
“The biggest thing for success of any player is when the team does well. If we continue to struggle it’s going to be tough for everybody but if we get this turned around and start playing better it’ll be good for the individuals. We have a lot of good players.”
While their penalty kill is improving, Ford knows his team has to start finding the back of the net, as well as defend as a unit. Ford, a defenceman, has 5 points (1 goal, 4 assists), which is on par for his annual point production. His plus-minus, however, isn’t. While he had grown used to playing for the Milwaukee Admirals, Ford recognizes that the Rivermen have struggled in recent years and is putting pressure on himself to help.
“I came into a new place and wanted to put my best foot forward and have success. I’ve had success in the past with teams I’ve been on and teams I’ve captained and it’s no different here,” he said. “You come to a new place and you want things to go well and go in a good direction, and when they aren’t you put pressure and doubt in your own mind.”
“I think anytime you’re at this level and you’ve given yourself a chance to play, you’ve got to be optimistic. You never know what’ll come around the corner and it’s been a long hard process.”
While Ford’s focus is on improving his squad in Peoria, the end of the lockout means there’s likely always going to be a little bubble in the back of his mind where his childhood dream of playing in the NHL lives.
It’s said the reason captains are selected is because they stand out in a leadership role and think collectively. Maybe that’s why Ford has captained teams for years and years.
Even when given another shot at age 33 to aim high and make it to the NHL, Ford puts his team first.
“It’s exciting,” he admitted. “You want to play in the NHL and this gives us the opportunity.”
“It’d be a dream come true to be able to play, but I just have to continue to focus on my play here and to get Peoria to win on a more consistent basis.”