The emergence of the post-2005 lockout Penguins and the growth of the the game of hockey in Pittsburgh have gone hand and hand . Some of this growth has come from having success on the ice and attracting more fans, while the organization also contributed to the growth of hockey players through “learn to play” events and sponsoring developmental youth teams. Connor Ford has been a beneficiary on both sides of this spectrum, and has advanced through the ranks to play college hockey at Bowling Green.
Ford, now 20 years old, is a native of Upper St. Clair. Unsurprisingly, he has numerous distinct memories of the local NHL team that stand out.
“I was always a Pens fan,” he said in a phone interview with PHD. “When I was younger it was kind of the tail end of Lemieux’s career. I still remember to this day I was watching the draft lottery in Ice Castle in Castle Shannon on the big jumbotron in the lobby area and seeing them get the first overall pick. Then they drafted Sid and everything went up from there. I remember watching them win the 2009 cup in my basement and it kind of grew from there.”
The Penguins peaked and maintained his interest in hockey, but it didn’t stop there. He was on skates at his local rink from a young age- and never looked back.
“I think I learned to skate when I was three,” he recalled. “In Mount Lebanon they had a learn to skate night of the week or whatever back then. Then I started playing the following year in Mt. Lebanon leagues. Then I spent most of my mite and squirts with the Predators. Then I spent some time with the Hornets. Then I kind of bounced around for a little while and came back and my bantam year I played for Pens Elite through U16. Then I left and went to Shattuck Saint Mary’s for my junior and senior year of high school, then the USHL in Sioux City and now Bowling Green.”
Ford is just one of many players in his age group that came through Penguins-sponsored youth teams and gone on to play Division-1 College Hockey. Among the players he remembers playing with are Aiden Beck (RMU), Brendan Walkom (Bentley), Eric Cooley (Niagara) and Chris Veltri (Niagara commit). These five all played together at some point during their bantam year.
His hockey roots are grounded in Pittsburgh, so after few years away in Minnesota and South Dakota, the opportunity to play college hockey roughly four hours away from home at Bowling Green was an attractive one.
“I committed before my senior year of high school so I had spent one year at Shattuck Saint Mary’s in Minnesota,” he explained. “It was far, I didn’t get to see my parents much, and they didn’t get to see me play much, so that contributed to me coming to Bowling Green. It’s kind of the perfect distance from home.”
That decision looked even smarter with the way his team’s schedule worked out. This season, their first game was at Mercyhurst in Erie, and the Falcons recently played a home and home series against RMU where Ford relished a big cheering section at the Colonials Arena. He appreciated the opportunity to play in front of so many familiar faces.
“That was pretty cool,” he remarked. “My parents get to see me play quite often either in person or online. But the experience to play in front of a lot of family and friends who have not seen me play since I was 15, 16 or even younger, to kind of see where I’m at now, it was a cool experience for sure.”
Not only was the game at RMU an opportunity to play in front of familiar faces, it was also a familiar rink. It gave him an opportunity to come full circle and appreciate just how far he had come.
“I can’t tell you how many games and practices I’ve played in that rink,” he reflected. “To be in the exact same locker room as a 20 year old playing college hockey. … I remember after our practices some nights RMU would play right after us. So it was kind of surreal to be on that side of the fence to be honest with you. It’s definitely a proud feeling.”
There are countless people that help any hockey player reaching a high level, from parents to siblings to coaches to friends, everyone has people that helped them along their journey. These all hold true for Ford, but he’s also been lucky enough to have a significant mentor in recent years, a guy who is arguably the best local product currently in the NHL.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to kind of have Vincent Trocheck as a role model probably for the past four or five summers now,” he shared. “I grew up in Upper St. Clair and he also grew up in Upper St. Clair so we work out and skate together. Especially as my career has become more and more serious at a higher level he’s been a tremendous influence and mentor these past few years.”
His relationship with Trocheck has given Ford another NHL team to keep up with. It also has provided him with a first-hand example of a way to achievement success in hockey starting in Pittsburgh.
Their paths are in fact quite similar. Both grew up in Upper St. Clair and played for the Hornets in their youth before moving to play during high school, Trocheck to Detroit and Ford to Minnesota. They eventually went on to play in cities just over two hours apart. Trocheck played in Saginaw, Michigan for the OHL’s spirit while Ford is of course in Bowling Green for the NCAA’s Falcons.
“I don’t think there’s a game that I don’t at least check up to see if he scored or not,” he said. “I watch whenever I can. Just to see his path, coming up through the Pittsburgh Hornets and what he’s been able to do, it’s kind of like I can look at him to know I can do that.”
Trocheck of course enjoyed his most successful NHL season last year, tallying 75 points in 82 games for the Florida Panthers. Ford put up very respectable numbers as a freshman, with 18 points in 41 games played.
Coincidentally, both are off to great starts this season. Trocheck has 8 points in 7 games, while Ford has 7 points in 5 games. Ford’s team is off to a great start as well, with a 4-1 record having outscored their opponents by a combined score of 26-8. They’re currently ranked 15th in the country.
Given this great start, Ford has high hopes for his team this year.
“I think we’ve got a lot of young talent,” he shared. “We have guys that love to play hockey, love to score goals, so this is probably the most fun I think I’ve ever had playing hockey. It’s just the energy in the room and on the ice. A lot of our success is special teams right now, our power play is at 30 whatever percent, and that’s where a lot of my success has come from, but overall I think we are in a spot to have a really special year.”