Connor Ford planned to turn pro after this season.

The center spent four years at Bowling Green, tallying 53 goals and 114 points. Ford, of Pittsburgh, hoped those gaudy numbers would land him an NHL contract.

"The market for college free agents in the post-COVID era is very slim and very difficult," Ford said. "I didn't get what I was looking for, so I had to decide between another year of college or going to kick it in the American League and start there. Ultimately, I decided college was the best route."

Ford entered the transfer portal on March 29 and his phone began buzzing frequently. Ford narrowed it down to a pair of finalists -- UND and Western Michigan.

"When coach (Brad) Berry came calling, offering an opportunity of a lifetime, it's something you don't say 'no' to, I don't care who you are," Ford said.

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Ford signed his grant-in-aid package Wednesday night, finalizing his commitment to play his final year of college eligibility at UND.

"I did a Zoom call with the coaching staff," Ford said. "It was a clinic of what recruiting should look like. I was in awe. They won me over on that Zoom call.

"It's a first-class organization. Obviously, the facilities are NHL-caliber, which is amazing, but I'm not someone that cares about the bells and whistles. I spent time at Shattuck and Bowling Green, two places that don't have the luxury that North Dakota has. What I was looking for was an opportunity from the hockey perspective. There's plenty of that with so many guys leaving and a top-notch coaching staff."

Ford, a 6-foot, 185-pound center, could slide into a key role next season for the Fighting Hawks.

UND is expecting to lose its top two centers from its back-to-back Penrose Cup-winning squads. Shane Pinto already signed an NHL deal with the Ottawa Senators, while Collin Adams is expected to eventually ink an NHL contract, too. Jasper Weatherby will be the heir apparent to one of those top-six center roles, but the other is open for Ford.

At Bowling Green, Ford was a staple on the power play (he led the WCHA in power-play goals) and on the penalty kill. On the power play, he played every position except for the top.

He also was strong in the faceoff circle, winning over 60 percent of his draws.

Ford has a couple of ties to UND players.

He played with senior Grant Mismash, who signed with the Nashville Predators this week, at Shattuck-St. Mary's, and he won the United States Hockey League's Anderson Cup with Jackson Keane in Sioux City.

Ford said he reached out to Keane before committing to UND.

"He had nothing but good things to say," Ford said. "It ended up being a no-brainer for me, to be honest."

Ford is one of nine Bowling Green players to enter the transfer portal this spring. All nine are graduates.

In addition to Ford, who was the team captain, four others have committed: goalie Eric Dop and forward Brandon Kruse committed to Boston College, defenseman Tim Theocharidis committed to Arizona State and forward Max Johnson committed to Wisconsin. The others still available are forward Cameron Wright, defenseman Will Cullen, defenseman Carson Musser and defenseman Justin Wells.

"It's going to be different," Ford said about seeing all of his classmates in different uniforms. "I'll be rooting for everyone to have success, except for when they're playing the Green and White. We had a really close class."

Ford hopes to spend the summer in Grand Forks, working toward his MBA (Master of Business Administration) and getting acclimated to his new surroundings. He also hopes to take advantage of UND's renowned facilities in Ralph Engelstad Arena.

"Ultimately what I want is an NHL contract, but first and foremost, I want to win," Ford said. "My dream scenario is that we win the regular-season title, the playoff title and the national championship."