Jason Ford photo

Wisconsin forward Jason Ford scores with a shot past Michigan State goalie Ed Minney and defenseman Carson Gatt as teammate Will Johnson looks on in the Badgers' 5-1 win Jan. 6 at the Kohl Center.

JOHN HART, STATE JOURNAL

At 190 days, college hockey has the longest continuous season of any NCAA sport. The schedule tests its participants with streaks and slumps, not to mention the physical grind built in.

As much as today’s season opener for the 12th-ranked University of Wisconsin and Michigan Tech is a starting point, it’s the end of what one player called a long journey.

Since he left the Badgers 12 games into his freshman season in 2014, Waunakee native Keegan Ford has made a few turns in his life. All, he said, have been for the better.

Now, he starts his time as a defenseman for Michigan Tech back at the Kohl Center, with his older brother wearing the other uniform.

Keegan and Jason Ford will be on opposite sides for the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Game, with Keegan completing a route that put him back in junior hockey and back home in Waunakee for a spell as he handled personal issues on which he declined to elaborate.

“Last year was definitely an adventure, I guess you can say,” Keegan said. “But I’m glad I did it.

“I was excited for this year to start and I’m excited for the future. Just excited that this Sunday is the end of this journey from when I left Wisconsin to get back to be playing college (hockey) again.”

Keegan, who’s a 21-year-old sophomore at Michigan Tech, and 23-year-old UW senior forward Jason have never played against each other — aside from in some open hockey games.

The grin on Jason’s face as he spoke about the possibility of meeting up with his brother on the ice gave away how special of a thing this is for his family.

“I might have to give him a little bit of a hard time,” Jason said in a typical older-brother voice. “I’m sure he’s going to come after me hard — he always does.

“I’m going to have to keep my head up.”

There’s also pride, Jason said, in Keegan getting through a difficult part of his young life.

When Keegan left UW in December 2014, one of the reasons cited publicly was he wasn’t having fun.

Granted, few were having fun with the Badgers at 1-10-1 and on their way to the worst season in the program’s modern history.

Now, Keegan can look back at that time and realize bigger issues were at play.

He described his life now as largely free of the anxiety and pressure he was putting on himself back then — as an 18-year-old in a new situation.

He returned to the United States Hockey League’s Dubuque Fighting Saints for the rest of the 2014-15 season and served as the team’s captain in 2015-16.

After orally committing to Michigan Tech in March 2015, he was scheduled to join the Huskies last season until he made a decision to put that move on hold to stay at home and get his personal issues solved.

“I decided I’d rather live at home and not play than have to go somewhere and play,” Keegan said.

After his USHL rights were traded, he was able to finish the 2016-17 season with the Madison Capitols, playing 22 games over the final four months.

“The best decision I made was to take care of those things and be able to live at home and learn how to manage those things,” Keegan said. “I think that, even though it sounds like I’m going to get a third year of eligibility (at Michigan Tech), even if I did lose a year because of it, it was still the right decision to take care of that.”

In 2014, before Keegan finalized his departure from UW, he and Jason talked about where things would go from there. Even though they are two years apart, they had been going in the same direction — Waunakee High School, Team Wisconsin, Dubuque — and that was about to end.

“I wanted him to be happy,” Jason said. “It was a bummer not being able to live with him and play with him, but I completely understood and I was happy for him, and he’s doing great now.”

Both Ford brothers have their own reasons to be enthused about the opening of the 2017-18 season. Jason is looking to end his collegiate career with a championship after spending his first two years in the Badgers’ doldrums.

He contributed four goals and seven points to a UW resurgence last season that has led to lofty expectations for the team: The Badgers are 11th and 12th in national preseason rankings.

“I’m excited about this team because I think we’ve got a heck of a team and we added a lot of great players,” Jason said. “We’ve really come together this season.”

For Keegan, there’s the anticipation of a season where he can let his talents as an offensive defenseman shine without the worries that used to accompany him.

“From when I went to Wisconsin until now, I think the biggest thing for me is that I’m just way more comfortable with everything, school-wise and hockey-wise,” Keegan said. “I’m not as nervous or anxious. I’m just having fun.”

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Todd D. Milewski covers Wisconsin Badgers men's hockey and the UW Athletic Department for the Wisconsin State Journal.