After playing in his first NHL game in 2005, Keith Ballard never looked back but it wasn't without some hard work and some fun along the way. Now in his sixth season, Ballard can reflect on all the experiences that have brought him to his third NHL team.
Growing up just across the border from Canada, hockey was as much part of the culture for him as any Canadian kid. Ballard developed his skills through the US development program before joining the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers in 2001. With the Gophers, he was part of two NCAA championship teams in 2002 and 2003 but fell in the NCAA Quarterfinals to Minnesota-Duluth in 2004 on a team he captained as a junior.
Ballard joined the Canucks this summer and in his first stint with a Canadian team, he has two goals and two assists in 34 games so far.
Ballard shares his tales from his journey to the NHL.
How old were you when you received your first pair of skates?
I was probably four or five when I started skating.
They were probably hand-me-downs from a cousin.
How did you get into hockey?
My uncle started bringing me to practices and I loved it right away. It’s something where I went in and just wanted to try it a little bit to see if I liked skating.
When you’re that age, it’s less hockey and more just skating, going out there to have fun and I had a blast right from the start.
I remember being young and pushing the chair or pushing anything to help me keep my balance. Everyone out there was doing it so I joined it and it was a lot of fun right from the start.
What was your first hockey team?
I was five or six on the mini-Mite team and it was just organized chaos of 10 kids of there chasing the puck in Baudette, Minnesota.
Growing up, the rink was my...
Favourite place to be.
What role did your family have in helping you get to where you are now?
They played a very important role. The sacrifices that they had to make and just the support they had for me throughout my career. They never pushed me once to the point where I would get sick of it or pressured me to do certain things. They were there strictly for support and that was really important.
To this day it’s fun for me. I enjoy coming to the rink everyday and in reality, if you don’t enjoy it, you can’t do it. The further up you go and the higher levels you make it through, you have to be having fun – it’s a game.
What is your favourite childhood hockey memory?
There were a lot of them but they’re all just being out there on the outdoor rink with buddies and cousins. Or playing open hockey at the rink after practices and spending countless hours there. We spent so much time at the rink so it was just a ton of fun.
What was hockey like growing up in your hometown?
It was very similar to Canada because I lived literally a couple hundred yards away from Canada. So it’s the same atmosphere as Saturday night’s Hockey Night in Canada for us. That’s what we do and people get excited for games. There are long and cold winters so hockey was part of the lifestyle there as it is all over Canada.
Who was your hockey hero?
I think one professional hockey player I looked up to was Neal Broten, who played for the North Stars for a long time. He grew up an hour from where I was so we had that local connection too and he was definitely someone I admired.
The picture [right] was at a hockey camp, it was Aaron Broten and Paul Broten, Neal’s brothers, who all played in the NHL. I used to go to that camp in my hometown.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
To make sure you have fun.
A lot of people now get so bent out of shape about the little details in the game but it’s a game and it’s supposed to be fun. Even in this room, we have 20 kids in here and everyone has fun doing this. Make sure that you remember it is a game and that being said, no one gets to where we are without a lot of hard work so you’ve got be willing to put in the time but make sure you enjoy it.
What was the biggest obstacle for you to get to where you are now?
As you get older and older, the competition is so good that you have to keep improving. For me, it was to make the high school team and then the world junior team and college but as you climb the ladder further and further, the players get better so there are fewer opportunities.
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.
Do you ever still get the feeling like this is unbelievable that you've made it here?
When you sit back, it’s not so much, ‘I can’t believe I’m here’ but when you put in perspective what you do for a living, what we’re able to do and what we’ve accomplished as players and as individuals, being in the NHL is a huge honour, so when you step back and think about it, yes, it’s pretty special.