Keegan Ford brings needed experience to Tech’s blue line
HOUGHTON — It is not everyday that a college hockey team can add a player with prior NCAA Division I hockey experience, yet that is something the Michigan Tech Huskies can say they have done coming into the 2017-18 campaign.
With 12 games under his belt with the Wisconsin Badgers, Keegan Ford has spent the last two-and-a-half seasons in the United States Hockey League (USHL).
After committing to come to campus prior to last season, things did not work out in Ford’s favor off the ice, leading to him using one more season of seasoning. Now he enters his debut with the Huskies as a much more mature 21-year-old, and he is proud of the fact that Michigan Tech stuck with him throughout everything he’s experienced.
“I think, at the end of the day, you have to realize what is the best path for you,” said Keegan. “Going to a smaller school is a better fit for me. I think it is the perfect fit for me.”
With the recent graduation of Shane Hanna, Keegan fills a need for the Huskies as he plays a similar style game to Hanna’s in that he loves to jump up into the play and make things happen.
“For me as a defenseman, they have had a lot of offensive defensemen the last couple of years,” said Keegan. “Guys who have had success.”
The Waunakee, Wisc. native grew up in the shadows of the Wisconsin Badgers in the late 1990s. His father, Pat Ford, played four years with the Badgers where he was a teammate of former Huskies assistant coach Gary Shuchuk. To make matters worse for the middle of three hockey-playing boys, Keegan’s older brother, Jason Ford, came to campus the same year he did.
It was not easy for Keegan to admit that he had made the wrong decision as an 18-year-old.
“There were a number of reasons why it wasn’t a good fit for me,” said Keegan. “It was tough being from Madison, having your dad play there and my brother was there at the time. We came in together, so there were a lot things that made it tough.”
Standing 5-foot-9, Keegan’s offensive instincts shone through from a young age, which is what drew the attention of then-Badgers head coach Mike Eaves. With Waunakee High School, Keegan scored 41 goals and 97 points in 45 games over 45 games as a freshman and sophomore alongside Jason, who was a forward on the team. The points came very easy to him.
“It was obviously a lot of fun playing alongside my brother and my buddies,” said Keegan. “I think it was good from a confidence level, just to make plays and feel comfortable with the puck.”
As a junior, Keegan made the jump to the USHL, joining the Dubuque Fighting Saints. In his first season with the Saints, he scored four goals and 16 points in 43 games. He also was a plus-19 on the season.
The following year, he struggled a bit offensively, scoring just one goal and 17 points in 60 games.
Having grown up less than 13 miles from the Kohl Center on Wisconsin’s campus, Keegan was excited to join the Badgers before it became painfully obvious that the fit was wrong and he announced to Eaves on Dec. 10 that he was walking away.
“I don’t think I was ready from the mental side of things, just how to handle school and being on a big campus made it that much tougher,” said Keegan. “I just turned 21 and been through a lot of things. I am more mature now than it was then.”
Keegan picked up two assists in 12 contests before departing Wisconsin and heading back to the Fighting Saints. The decision was quickly proved to be a smart one for the youngster as he posted two goals and 17 points in 38 games with Dubuque.
Just four months later, in early March, Keegan announced on Twitter that he was “Excited to announce that I’ll be playing college hockey at Michigan Tech.” He followed that announcement up with a seven-goal, 36-point season for the Fighting Saints while serving as the team captain. He also finished a plus-14 for the season.
Keegan was scheduled to join the Huskies before last season, but some off-ice issues stood in the way of him joining what proved to be a very deep Huskies’ squad that finished with a WCHA playoff title and their second NCAA tournament bid in three seasons. While things fell through last year, it was the efforts of then-assistant coach Joe Shawhan that helped him through what could have easily been the end of his hockey career at the college level.
Now, with Shawhan at the helm for the Huskies, the decision to come to Michigan Tech was an easy one for Keegan.
“When Joe got the head job, it was a huge relief,” said Keegan. “Joe would call me every week or every other week and just check in, not even hockey-wise, just seeing how I was doing. He’s definitely been there for me.”
In a rare experience for a college hockey player, Keegan also knows one of the Huskies’ assistants quite well.
“When Dallas [Steward] got the assistant job, I had played for him at the World Jr. A Challenge at the USHL level,” said Keegan. “I have a comfort level with him too.”
With the loss of three defensemen to graduation and another to the professional ranks, there is a real need for defensemen with experience, something Keegan has. He is excited to join a program on the rise, and looks forward to the challenge ahead.
Keegan is also excited about the possibility of playing against Jason in the opening game of the season for both teams as the Huskies and Badgers will meet in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game on Sunday, October 1, at the Kohl Center.
“We play them the first game of the year, so that should be interesting,” said Keegan. “I still know a bunch of the Wisconsin guys and I hang out with them in the summer. We definitely have been talking about it. We have a lot of friends and family from around Madison who will be there.
“I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to playing against my brother. This will be the first time we have ever played against each other.”
Keegan likens his game to that of former Montreal Canadiens defender Francis Bouillon. The 5-foot-8 Bouillon spent 14 seasons between the Canadiens and Nashville Predators, where he shined as a second power play unit guy who chipped in offensively when called upon. If Keegan can add that type of offense to the Huskies’ game, he will go a long way towards helping the Huskies defend the Broadmoor Trophy.