Jason Ford was only seven years old when the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) peaked his interest back in the mid-1980’s.
“My father would take me to Ottawa 67s games when I was a kid and Gary Roberts was their star player,” recalled the Barrie Colts general manager, who grew up in Orleans, a suburb of Ottawa located just 20 minutes outside the nation’s capital. Ford always made sure to keep track of the players on the ice.
“I would follow the players statistically and then I’d look for them when going to games,” he said. “Then I’d go home and write my own box score and report.”
Ford is still keeping track of OHL players these days, but on a much more important and larger scale. Now in his seventh season as a general manager and head scout, the man who oversees the Colts hockey operations department has amassed an impressive 246-176-15-13 record. He’s helped guide the Colts to three Central Division titles, two appearances in the Eastern Conference finals and an OHL championship berth in 2012-13 before losing a heartbreaking battle to the London Knights in the final second of game seven. And this season the Colts are once again battling for top spot in the Central Division.
“His biggest strength is his hard work,” Colts president and owner Howard Campbell said of Ford. “He’s one of the hardest working GMs in our league. He’s in the arena a lot, he’s talking to parents and he’s recruiting. If you look at his drafts the last seven years, I’d put him right up there with the top clubs in the OHL. He’s done a great job of recruiting and that’s probably why we’ve had great success on the ice.”
Having graduated from Laurentian University with Honours Commerce in the Sports Administration program, Ford joined the Colts organization in 2001 when he was hired as communications director.
The Colts would name Ford, who played junior A hockey in the mid-1990s with the Gloucester Rangers of the CJHL, assistant general manager in 2006. When Campbell purchased the team in 2006, he told Ford that if he worked hard, applied himself and wanted to move up in the organization, there’d be opportunity for him to do so.
“He took that as a gesture of, ‘OK, someone is going to give me a chance here to get on the other side of the business’ and we did,” said Campbell, who named Ford GM and head scout in August of 2011. “Through hard work and dedication and commitment through work ethic, he rolled up through our system and became general manager, which has been a great thing for us. He’s done a great job quarterbacking.”
Ford says he was fortunate in the early years with the club to have an office close to former general manager and scouting director Mike McCann. He made an effort to watch and learn from McCann, who would go on to scout for the Montreal Canadiens.
“I got to learn a lot about how he handled himself, how he handled trades,” Ford said. “I would say the biggest thing I learned from him was the importance of the draft. You go into the draft with a clean slate and if you can strategize the process, outwork and outmaneuver other teams in your league, then with those 15 players you’re going to bring in there’s a good chance you have an edge on the opposition. I really learned from Mike the importance of everything that goes with scouting.”
While Ford and his scouting staff have brought in big talent early in drafts, like 2017 first overall OHL priority selection pick Ryan Suzuki and first overall CHL import pick Andrei Svechnikov, Campbell says it’s in the later rounds where Ford and his scouting staff have really shined. Players like 2014 15th-round selection Lucas Chiodo, 2014 eighth-round pick and captain Justin Murray, and current San Jose Sharks forward Kevin Labanc, a sixth-round pick in 2011, have all played or are playing key roles with the franchise.
Andrew Mangiapane, who was a free agent invite and posted back-to-back 100-point seasons, is now with the Calgary Flames.
“We really try to be open minded with everything,” Ford said. “If we like a player that is small, well we’ve shown that we’ll bring in the Mangiapane’s. Even Labanc wasn’t the biggest player in the world. You really try to get to know players and not close doors. Try to find out as much information as we can about these players.”
Character is another key focus Ford looks for. He says the club is big on the personality traits of the players, even finding out what their families are like.
“We interview a lot of players, so we can incorporate all that,” he said, wanting his draft list as deep and sharp as possible. “We meet players and get to know them and then I feel like we can make better educated guesses on who is going to work here and what type of players are going to work with (head coach Dale Hawerchuk) too.”
Hawerchuk has put his faith in Ford and his scouting staff, knowing they have done their work when it comes to finding players who will contribute down the road.
“Sometimes I might not know a player and I’ll say to them, ‘Tell me why he is better than this guy?’ And they do,” the Hockey Hall of Famer said. “They have the information and if they believe in it, then we make the picks like that.”
Ford believes the Colts biggest strength has been the communication between the staff and their ability to work together. He says that all starts with Campbell and ownership.
“He really wants to win and he knows that sitting at .500 is okay and fans are still going to come, but Howie knows sometimes your opportunity or window might be a little small, so you have to take a little bit of a risk and go for it,” Ford said. “That’s ownership’s confidence in the ability of hockey operations drafting players and Dale’s development of players.”
After taking a step back last season and finishing last in the OHL, the Colts sit among the Eastern Conference leaders this season and strengthened the club with trades for snipers Aaron Luchuk and Dmitry Sokolov, while boosting the blue line earlier with the addition of overager TJ Fergus. While they don’t always see eye to eye on what players to acquire, Hawerchuk says he and Ford always finds a way to make it work.
“We get along well,” Hawerchuk said. “We don’t argue that much, but we really make our point on certain guys. (Ford) does his homework and I like that. I always do my homework and when we get down to the nitty gritty, we’re pretty much on the same page and it makes it work. He’s got a good eye for it and he’s out there all the time. Sometimes when you want to make deals work you’ve got to convince the other side as well, so he does a pretty good job that way.”
Ford spends countless hours at the rink and on the road scouting and that means time away from his wife Yolanda, son Keaton, 8, and daughter Ellery, 6. A lot of nights away from home are spent going to tournaments across the province, in the United States and even Europe.
“It’s very time consuming, a full commitment type of job and with him having a young family and all he has risen to the challenge and he’s done a great job for us,” Campbell said.
Hired as a scout eight year ago, Rob Stewart is now in his third season as the Colts assistant GM. Watching Ford juggle all his duties along with a young family is something he has always admired about his boss, as is the trust he showed when he hired him as a scout at the age of 23.
“He always had time to listen to my opinion even though I was a first-year scout with no experience,” Stewart said. “Trust is a huge thing he has built with all his staff members.”
That the small boy who grew up watching junior hockey in Ottawa has made a living of it is no surprise to Campbell.
“I’ve owned a lot of businesses and one thing I’ve learned is you hire good people, you pay them and then get out of the way,” he said. “Let them do what they’re good at and Jason is a prime example of that situation. He’s risen to the challenge. He’s worked hard and he’s earned everything he’s got. We don’t look back at all in our decision to make him our general manager. He’s been a great fit for us.”
In the photo, Barrie Colts general manager Jason Ford, right, and head coach Dale Hawerchuk, left, welcome 2017 OHL first overall pick Ryan Suzuki to the team. Photo courtesy of the Barrie Colts.