With the Gophers’ hockey team off to its best start in 10 years, some fans are making comparisons to the teams that won it all in 2001-02 and 2002-03.
One player who had a sizeable impact on those teams is Vancouver Canucks defenseman Keith Ballard, who was playing in town Thursday.
Ballard scored the first goal of the 2002 NCAA Championship game against Maine at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The Gophers went on to win 4-3 after tying the game in the final minute of regulation on a Matt Koalska goal before Grant Potulny won it in overtime.
The Canucks were in town Thursday to play the Minnesota Wild and lost 5-1. Ballard had a minimal impact on the game, but got involved in a skirmish in the chippy contest.
“My favorite NCAA memory was winning the first national championship here,” Ballard said during his team’s morning skate Thursday.
“It was just an exciting game, scoring the goal late, and then we went into overtime. That’s something that’s probably my best hockey memory.”
The next year, the Gophers repeated as national champions by defeating New Hampshire 5-1 in Buffalo, New York.
Ballard played for the Gophers from 2001-04 before signing a pro contract with the Phoenix Coyotes and playing a year for their minor league affiliate, the Utah Grizzles of the American Hockey League.
During his three seasons for the Gophers, he amassed 33 goals and 67 assists for 100 points.
The two-way defenseman from Baudette, Minn., dabbled in many different sports when he was young, including hockey, golf, football and baseball.
He started skating around age four and exceled at sports from the beginning, according to his mother, Joanne.
“He was athletic from the start. Everything he’d try he was good at — bowling, little league [baseball] — everything he did athletically he was very good at,” Joanne Ballard said. “He was a very impatient little kid and luckily for me, I got him into hockey early and [he put] a lot of that energy into that.”
Ballard’s parents own Ballard’s Resort, a fishing resort located on Lake of the Woods in Baudette, so Keith also spent a great amount of his childhood hunting, fishing and spending time on the lake.
Even though Ballard played many sports, hockey ultimately won out.
“My uncle was a coach, and he kind of got me involved and brought me to some practices, and I loved it right away,” Ballard said. “As I got older, I started to realize that maybe I had some opportunities to continue playing after high school and move on. I just loved it. It was by far my favorite sport.”
Ballard played hockey pretty much year-round on traveling teams in the Twin Cities and even traveled to Canada and Russia to play.
After his sophomore year of high school, Ballard left Baudette to play in the United States Hockey League. He played one season with the U.S. National Developmental Team and one year with the Omaha Lancers. Ballard’s parents left the entire decision to leave home up to him.
“It was [a tough decision], that’s about the time that I kind of decided that there was some sort of future, whether it was playing juniors like in the USHL or going to college,” Ballard said. “That was kind of a decision that I made not only for that time but for my future as well.”
For his mother, the decision meant going from having two children at home to none in one year, as Keith’s older sister Jessie also left to go to college that year.
“I heard a lot of good things and really I thought he was too young to leave home, but it was a great commitment and he made that decision on his own and … matured so fast,” Joanne Ballard said.
“They were taught a lot of amazing things that didn’t have anything to do with hockey; about representing your country, representing yourself, always putting your best foot forward, being responsible and being accountable,” she added.
Keith Ballard lived with host families during his two-year stint in the USHL. In those two years, he scored 34 goals and assisted on 50 more for a total of 84 points.
After the USHL came the college recruiting process.
Baudette is 181 miles from Grand Forks, N.D., and 319 miles from Minneapolis.
“Growing up, I followed Minnesota and I followed North Dakota and those were the two schools that I was most interested in,” Ballard said. “It just came down to my taking visits and being on campus, being around the guys and the coaching staff.”
Gophers head coach Don Lucia said he knew that getting Ballard on his roster was not going be easy.
“It was a real battle with North Dakota where he was going to end up,” Lucia said. “We were fortunate enough for him to come here and he turned out to be an All-American and a big reason why we won a couple national titles,” Lucia said.
Joanne Ballard said she thought her son would end up at UND. Ballard’s sister, Jessie, is a UND alumna, so an in-house rivalry persists to this day.
“I thought growing up, because of our proximity to Grand Forks, he would probably go there because they had a great hockey program and it was close by,” Joanne Ballard said. “But after he visited the schools and made his choice, we went with him to a visit to the [University of Minnesota] and it was a great program.”
Ballard said he chose Minnesota because he liked the bigger campus, the group of guys, the tradition and the coaching staff. One intangible reason not to be overlooked: “I just felt like I fit in there,” he said.
“I thought he would be a good player in the NHL,” Lucia said. “He’s moved around a little bit, and he’s had to battle with some injuries. I knew he would be a good NHL player, and he has proven that.”
Ballard was drafted 11th overall in the 2002 NHL Draft by the Buffalo Sabers. After being traded four times and playing one year in the minors, he is currently playing in his seventh season at hockey’s highest level. He played for Phoenix and the Florida Panthers before being dealt to Vancouver prior to the 2010 season.
In his first six years as a pro, Ballard has scored 36 goals and racked up 121 assists while developing a reputation as a quality hip-checker. He had one goal 15 games into his 2011-12 campaign.
He’s made more than $14 million since his rookie season.
Ballard said playing for the Gophers and their coaching staff really helped him transition to the NHL.
“I think I had an amazing experience there in my three years, two national championships and I had the opportunity to play in a lot of big games with a lot of real good players,” Ballard said. “I think those experiences really helped make the transition and I played one year in the minors and I think that was a real nice stepping stone.”
The Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in Ballard’s first season in Vancouver, losing a decisive Game 7 to the Boston Bruins.
“It was a tough summer for everyone — it was. You can’t explain the disappointment that we felt after Game 7,” Ballard said. “But we’ve moved on, and we’re excited to try and do something special this year.”
Vancouver is in the same division as the Wild, which means Ballard will make more trips to play in his home state.
“For me that’s special, just having those people who maybe don’t get the time to travel as much during the season,” Ballard said. “Aunts and uncles, some close friends and grandparents, getting to see them a couple times a year is nice.”
Ballard’s parents joked that they weren’t all too happy about him playing in Canada now. They said they enjoyed traveling to the warm-weather climates of Arizona and Florida to watch their son play.
“We used to go see him when he played in Phoenix. We liked to see him when he went to Florida and we found out that we loved Florida and we decided we could spend some time in the winter down there and then he got traded,” Joanne Ballard said.
Ballard, who is married and has one daughter, who was born in 2010, spends his offseason in Minnesota and has stayed in touch with his former Gophers teammates and the coaching staff.
“There are a lot of us that spend our summers working out at Mariucci, skating there and training in the gym,” Ballard said. “The program has done such a good job of allowing us to come back and use the facilities, so we get to know a lot of the guys that are on the team currently, and for a lot of us that have summers off, we’re all on the same schedule. We get a lot of time to spend together and catch up, and it’s fun.”
Lucia said having a player like Ballard close to the program is a good thing.
“He’s just a fun-loving kid, dedicated, hardworking and just a great kid to be around,” Lucia said. ”He has been very loyal to our program since he left — whether it’s donating money or being around and working out and being a great role model for our future players.”
Now considered a veteran in the NHL, Ballard said he still doesn’t take anything for granted — including his career and his family.
“Each stage there’s different challenges, but it’s a lot of fun coming home and having people to share it with,” Ballard said. “I’ve been fortunate, and I feel very fortunate every day.”
-Dane Mizutani contributed to this report.