With the GophersâÄô 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.
âÄúMy favorite NCAA memory was winning the first national championship here,âÄù Ballard said during his teamâÄôs morning skate Thursday.
âÄúIt was just an exciting game, scoring the goal late, and then we went into overtime. ThatâÄôs something thatâÄôs probably my best hockey memory.âÄù
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.
âÄúHe was athletic from the start. Everything heâÄôd try he was good at âÄî bowling, little league [baseball] âÄî everything he did athletically he was very good at,âÄù Joanne Ballard said. âÄúHe 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.âÄù
BallardâÄôs parents own BallardâÄôs 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.
âÄúMy uncle was a coach, and he kind of got me involved and brought me to some practices, and I loved it right away,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúAs 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.âÄù
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. BallardâÄôs parents left the entire decision to leave home up to him.
âÄúIt was [a tough decision], thatâÄôs 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,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúThat was kind of a decision that I made not only for that time but for my future as well.âÄù
For his mother, the decision meant going from having two children at home to none in one year, as KeithâÄôs older sister Jessie also left to go to college that year.
âÄúI 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 âÄ¦ matured so fast,âÄù Joanne Ballard said.
âÄúThey were taught a lot of amazing things that didnâÄôt have anything to do with hockey; about representing your country, representing yourself, always putting your best foot forward, being responsible and being accountable,âÄù 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.
âÄúGrowing up, I followed Minnesota and I followed North Dakota and those were the two schools that I was most interested in,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúIt just came down to my taking visits and being on campus, being around the guys and the coaching staff.âÄù
Gophers head coach Don Lucia said he knew that getting Ballard on his roster was not going be easy.
âÄúIt was a real battle with North Dakota where he was going to end up,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe 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,âÄù Lucia said.
Joanne Ballard said she thought her son would end up at UND. BallardâÄôs sister, Jessie, is a UND alumna, so an in-house rivalry persists to this day.
âÄúI 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,âÄù Joanne Ballard said. âÄúBut 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.âÄù
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: âÄúI just felt like I fit in there,âÄù he said.
âÄúI thought he would be a good player in the NHL,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúHeâÄôs moved around a little bit, and heâÄôs had to battle with some injuries. I knew he would be a good NHL player, and he has proven that.âÄù
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 hockeyâÄôs 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.
HeâÄôs 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.
âÄúI 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,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúI 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.âÄù
The Canucks advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals in BallardâÄôs first season in Vancouver, losing a decisive Game 7 to the Boston Bruins.
âÄúIt was a tough summer for everyone âÄî it was. You canâÄôt explain the disappointment that we felt after Game 7,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúBut weâÄôve moved on, and weâÄôre excited to try and do something special this year.âÄù
Vancouver is in the same division as the Wild, which means Ballard will make more trips to play in his home state.
âÄúFor me thatâÄôs special, just having those people who maybe donâÄôt get the time to travel as much during the season,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúAunts and uncles, some close friends and grandparents, getting to see them a couple times a year is nice.âÄù
BallardâÄôs parents joked that they werenâÄôt 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.
âÄúWe 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,âÄù 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.
âÄúThere are a lot of us that spend our summers working out at Mariucci, skating there and training in the gym,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúThe 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, weâÄôre all on the same schedule. We get a lot of time to spend together and catch up, and itâÄôs fun.âÄù
Lucia said having a player like Ballard close to the program is a good thing.
âÄúHeâÄôs just a fun-loving kid, dedicated, hardworking and just a great kid to be around,âÄù Lucia said. âÄùHe has been very loyal to our program since he left âÄî whether itâÄôs donating money or being around and working out and being a great role model for our future players.âÄù
Now considered a veteran in the NHL, Ballard said he still doesnâÄôt take anything for granted âÄî including his career and his family.
âÄúEach stage thereâÄôs different challenges, but itâÄôs a lot of fun coming home and having people to share it with,âÄù Ballard said. âÄúIâÄôve been fortunate, and I feel very fortunate every day.âÄù
-Dane Mizutani contributed to this report.