The makeshift ice rinks carved into the snowy expanses of Dollar Lake are as far away in distance as they are in decorum from a Motor City boardroom.
And yet, Bill Ford is equally comfortable in both settings.
Like the blue and white warming tents staked into the Eagle River (Wis.) ice, the 54-year-old executive chairman of Ford Motor Company is a fixture at the annual Labatt Blue USA Hockey Pond Hockey Championships. And he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Ford and his teammates have been on the ground floor of the tournament that started with 42 teams in 2006. Over the years their squad, which includes mainstays Bill McCall, Ralph Booth, Jim Kwilos, Mark Graham and Gordie MacDougall, have taken home four division crowns, and finished as the runners-up on two other occasions, including this year.
Along the way they have a combined record of 30-4 and outscored opponents by a better than 2 to 1 margin. But who’s keeping score? It’s all about having fun, getting away from the daily pressures of the corporate grind, hanging with old friends and making new ones.
“To me it’s about as much fun as you can have,” Ford said as the sun set on Friday’s opening round of games.
“We’ve been doing this for a number of years, and we’ve gotten to know a number of teams and we really look forward to seeing these guys year after year. We’re all trying as hard as we possibly can, and then 15 minutes later we’re in the beer tent swapping stories.”
“I can't think about ford motor company or the detroit lions when i'm out here. If I do i'm in a snow bank pretty quickly.”
Still, the more things change the more they stay the same. The town of Eagle River continues to roll out the red carpet for all the teams, and the organization of the tournament continues to improve as the numbers swell toward 300 teams.
“Fortunately, things haven’t changed a lot because that same spirit that was here at the very beginning is still here today,” said Ford, who is no stranger to other pond hockey events.
“I was worried that when the tournament started to get as big as it has gotten, that it would become too corporate and not as personal, but that hasn’t happened. I’m really happy about that.”
As word continues to spread among the hockey world, including the group that Ford plays with on Sunday mornings and Monday nights, so too does the interest level of joining in on the fun. Former NHL great Igor Larionov even asked to join the Ford team, a request that was politely and tactfully turned down.
“Can you imagine if we showed up with Igor Larionov?” Ford laughed. “We’d be run out of town on a rail. Plus, we have a core group of guys that we love to play with.”
As one would imagine, carving out time to hit the rink can be a challenge for any busy person, but especially for one occupying a top position with one of Detroit’s Big Three automotive companies. But for every adult player making the annual pilgrimage to northern Wisconsin, it’s all hockey, all the time once they set foot in Eagle River.
“I can’t think about Ford Motor Company or the Detroit Lions when I’m out here. If I do I’m in a snow bank pretty quickly,” said Ford, who is also vice chairman of the NFL franchise.
Far from the pressures of the boardroom, the laid back setting away from the ice and the competitive atmosphere on it offers Ford the opportunity to step back in time to when he grew up playing shinny hockey on Lake St. Clair in the suburbs of Detroit.
After playing hockey from Squirts through high school, Ford put the sport aside as he pursued an education at Princeton University (where he played rugby) before embarking on the family business. It wasn’t until years later that the great grandson of Henry Ford rediscovered his passion for the game.
“I love the game and I love to play the game, but I also love to watch the game, particularly when it’s somebody that you care about,” Ford said of his son, Will, a sophomore forward at Princeton.
“He’s a lot better than I ever was, but I wouldn’t tell him that. I have a blast watching him play.”
Here in Eagle River, Ford enjoys the freedom to be just another passionate soul looking to rediscover his hockey roots. Not that he hides his company pride; the team’s jerseys are emblazoned with a large Ford emblem. He’s also more than willing to talk about trucks, the Lions and especially about hockey. As long as it doesn’t get in the way of the puck dropping.
“I’ve signed everything from snowmobiles to engine blocks on people’s cars, but it’s all good,” Ford said.
“There are a lot of Ford fans here and a lot of people drive F-150s. There are a few Lions fans, too. People are great. They all just want to come up and tell me about the first Mustang they ever owned, and that’s very cool. I love that.”
Over the years, Ford and his friends have continued their practice of winning as they have met all challenges while advancing in age divisions. Still, as word continues to bring more competitive teams to the tournament, it gets harder to leave the pond with the championship hardware.
Whether it’s leading the family business and his beloved home state back into prosperity or winning a pond hockey game, it’s the competitive drive that keeps Ford on top of his game.
“My teammates and I were talking about how crazy is it that at age 50 something that we’re all getting butterflies in our stomachs about playing. That says something about how much we enjoy it,” he said.
“Obviously the whole world doesn’t care what we do up here, but we do. It does take your mind off of work, and I come back from this incredibly refreshed and can’t wait to sign up for next year.
“And as long as my body holds out, I’ll keep doing this.”