Starting at a very young age, hockey dominated Pat Ford’s life. From youth to adulthood and fatherhood, hockey has been and still is an integral part of Ford’s existence.
Ford was born in Battleford and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, a municipality similar to Madison – a university town with many natural resources.
His father hails from San Francisco and played semi-pro baseball in Saskatchewan where he met Ford’s mother. The couple tried to settle in San Francisco but after the fifth or sixth earthquake, they returned to Canada to raise their family.
Growing up in Canada, one plays either hockey or curling, and every community has an ice rink leaving no lack of rink time. Ford donned his skates and held his first hockey stick at age 4. He played competitively until age 16 before moving into the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League where he led the league in goal scoring with 72 goals in 56 games for the Yorkton Terriers.
Ford accepted a hockey scholarship to UW-Madison, playing center from 1984-1988 and where he enjoyed the camaraderie and his contribution on the ice with fellow Badgers. In his last year the UW team won the inaugural WCHA Playoff Championship.
“I didn’t really appreciate the experience until it was over. Wisconsin’s program is truly special with special fans and phenomenal academics,” Ford said of those highly competitive years.
Ford continues to meet up with fellow teammates at a yearly golf outing of alumni, and his roommate, Kurt Semandel ended up in the same community of Waunakee.
Dreaming of playing professional hockey, Ford was thrilled to be picked for the Canadian National Hockey Team, an outstanding experience until he was cut.
“It was the toughest thing I ever had to do,” Ford said.
Returning to UW-Madison to finish his schooling, Ford graduated with a bachelor’s in bacteriology and worked as a microbiologist with UW-Madison’s food research.
Ford briefly played to full stands of hockey fans in Swindon, England, before hanging up his skates. Prior to leaving England, Ford visited all the sites familiar to his Canadian roots.
“It was a phenomenal experience,” Ford said.
Ford returned to the United States and Madison to take up coaching. His long distance relationship to Cammie Hellenbrand blossomed and the two were married in 1990. His first coaching position was as an assistant coach at Edgewood High School winning a state championship. After two years Ford moved into a UW graduate assistant position.
The couple moved to Michigan to follow an opportunity for a full-time assistant coach to Northern Michigan’s hockey team. After two years, Ford returned to UW-Madison where he was assistant coach for the next eight years winning several WCHA Playoffs Championships and a McNaughton Cup as League Champions. During his coaching tenure at UW, Ford recruited and coached 17 NHL players, including Dany Heatley, Rene Bourque and Brad Winchester.
An opportunity to become head coach at the University of Findlay, a private school in northwest Ohio, had the family moving again. All was well until the Board of Regents decided to drop both the men’s and women’s hockey teams.
“It was very emotional. But that’s the business side of college athletics,” Ford said.
With few coaching positions to choose from, Ford made the tough decision to end his coaching career and concentrate on watching his three hockey loving sons play and grow. Since Cammie was originally from Waunakee, the Fords decided to settle here.
Ford was hired by Hellenbrand Water to help grow the independent dealer base. The family run business started by Jim and Flo Hellenbrand in 1967 has a reputation for being innovators in residential and commercial water treatment, including reverse osmosis and water softening. The “Iron Curtain” is a patented product for iron filtration of well water. In 10 years, the company has grown from less than 100 dealers to over 200 in 39 states. The local Water Center covers a four county area.
“We’re proud of our reputation in the industry. We grow the business the old fashion way – by building relationships,” Ford said. “Our customer service, accounting, sales and production team are second to none. People do make the difference. We take good care of our customers and we need to earn customers’ business every day.”
According to Ford, technology has evolved so that many water quality issues can be dealt with.
“We want to educate consumers about the science behind our products,” Ford said.
Hellenbrand, Inc. is a flourishing second generation business with a vibrant plumbing and wholesale division as well. In 2010, Ford accepted the honor of becoming an owner alongside Jeff and Paul Hellenbrand.
As Ford transitioned from coaching to business, his three sons, Jason, Keegan and Kevin took to the ice just as their father. The boys became competitive early on participating in Team Wisconsin and Dubuque U.S. Hockey League as well Waunakee’s Varsity Hockey Team.
The Ford family’s hockey life included many miles of travel and many days and nights on the road. Ford’s wife, Cammie, may not have grown up with hockey but she has embraced the sport and supports her sons whole heartedly.
“She’s as rabid a hockey fan as any Canadian mother I know,” Ford said.
Ford did not give up on coaching completely. He coached AAA for the Madison Capitals and Team Wisconsin 16’s and helped with the Waunakee High School hockey team.
Most recently, Jason, age 20, and his brother Keegan, age 18, were recruited and have signed on to play together for UW.
Jason has been playing for Bemidji State University in Minnesota, and Keegan just graduated from Waunakee High School. The two are excited to attend their father’s alma mater together. Kevin, aka “Chevy”, a junior, will continue the Waunakee Warrior tradition.
Ford is very proud of his sons but knows the ins and outs of playing on a collegiate level.
“College athletics is a huge commitment. You have to love it. We never pushed them. But they do love it and that’s what’s gratifying,” Ford said.
As history circles back, Ford’s words of wisdom to his sons is to never forget your roots and give back to the community and coaches along the way.