December 16, 2015

Keith Ballard

Baudette, Minnesota's Keith Ballard, like so many Minny boys of his era, grew up idolizing the great University of Minnesota and Minnesota North Stars' legend. Ballard's hockey career would take a similar journey, much to his own amazement.

"There are only 700 or so players in the NHL and when you look at all the kids who play hockey, to get to those 700, it’s tough to do. The whole journey in itself is very tough and once you get there, it’s trying to stick and a battle within itself."

Keith Ballard was a spirited physical player, built solidly though lacking height. The defenseman's trademark was his low (sometimes too low) hip check that certainly would get everyone's attention. He was also a good shot blocker.

He was a powerful skater, fast and effortless. Offensively he possessed a howitzer of a shot, though he did not always get the puck on target. He suffered from brain-cramps and the occasional spectacular error, landing him in more than one coach's dog house. Everything from forcing ill advised passes or pinches to even accidentally clubbing his own goalie in the head.

Drafted 11th overall in 2002 by the Buffalo Sabres, Ballard was a star blueliner with the University of Minnesota. The Gophers would win back-to-back NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003. Ballard, a 2004 Hobey Baker finalist and All-American, ranks as one of the greatest players in Minnesota's storied history. He would often say his years at college were the highlight of his hockey career.

Ballard would leave school early to embark on a solid 10 year NHL career. Ballard would enjoy three solid seasons with Phoenix and two in Florida before joining the Vancouver Canucks in 2010. Though he often, at times inexplicably, found himself in coach Alain Vigneault's bad books, Ballard counts the Canucks 2011 run to the Stanley Cup Final as his career NHL highlight.

He also was very happy to return to Minnesota in 2013, this time as a member of the NHL Wild. But his season and a half there came to an abrupt halt thanks to a serious concussion injury, the fifth diagnosed head injury of his career. Matt Martin of the New York Islanders infamously hit him leaving him with three fractured bones in his face and convulsing on the ice. It was one of the scariest injuries in recent NHL memory.

The result was continuing headaches and visits to the neurologist rather than the hockey rink. When headaches persisted months later, Ballard realized he could never take the chance of getting hurt again.

"I didn't want to retire at this time, but with the bigger picture in mind, it was a no-brainer," Ballard said. "You look at so many athletes and they struggle for so long and I don't want that to be me. I want to live a healthy life, be there for my wife and kids."

In 604 career NHL games Keith Ballard scored 38 goals and 175 points.

Ballard returned to the University of Minnesota, where his scholarship still remained valid. He pursued his degree in sports management, and planned to apprentice in the office of his old agent, Ben Hankinson.

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