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A Fan In Minnesota

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
By Michael Russo for panthers insider

Jordan Leopold (Getty Images)
The biggest Florida Panthers fan, at least in the state of Minnesota, is now Don Lucia, the hockey coach at the University of Minnesota.

That’s because Keith Ballard, 26, and Jordan Leopold, 29, two pivotal defensemen on the 2002 NCAA-champion Golden Gophers, have finally been reunited, only in the NHL and in South Florida.

“I’ve got the [Center Ice] package, and to me, if I’m going to turn on a game, there’s got to be an ex-Gopher in that game for me to be interested,” Lucia said. “I enjoy watching our players play, so I’ll be catching a lot of Florida games this year.”

Just imagine how Lucia’s head will spin if the Panthers recall Jeff Taffe at some point. Taffe led that same Gophers championship team with 34 goals.

Lucia was ecstatic back on Draft Day when the Panthers traded for the rights to Leopold. That day, Lucia said he got a phone call from a member of the Panthers’ front office wondering if Ballard and Leopold were former teammates at what’s affectionately known as the U here in Minnesota.

The Panthers wanted to begin the recruitment in convincing Leopold to sign before becoming a free agent, and Ballard’s presence was going to be one of the chief selling points.

And yes, in 2002, when the Gophers won their first national championship since 1979 right down the road in St. Paul, Ballard was a freshman and Leopold a senior.

“I think being teammates again will be really special for both of them,” Lucia said. “But Jordan’s got to realize Keith’s not a freshman anymore. He better not boss him around.”

No kidding.

If there’s senior-freshman hazing during any Panthers’ practices this season, there’s a good chance Ballard hip checks Leopold through the glass. He’s no kid anymore.

Ballard was a star right from his first year at the U. So was Leopold, who won the Hobey Baker Award (college hockey player of the year) in 2002 over St. Cloud State’s Mark Hartigan and New Hampshire’s Darren Haydar.

“He was so good,” Ballard said of Leopold. “For me coming in, he really was good to watch and learn from. [New Jersey Devils defenseman] Paul Martin was there, too, so I was sitting behind a couple great players. From a learning standpoint, it was awesome.

“Jordan’s had a couple tough breaks the last few years being injured, but I think he’s going to be great for us. He’s good everywhere. He’s smart, he skates so well, he’s good with the puck, he’s real good defensively. I think he’ll be a huge help for us.”

Keith Ballard (Getty Images)
Ballard and Leopold were never defense partners at the U, and they also played on separate power-play units.

But they both played huge roles in Minnesota 4-3 overtime win over Maine in the 2002 title game. Ballard scored the first goal of the game on a beautiful give-and-go pinch. Leopold didn’t score, but it was Leopold’s rebound that Grant Potulny knocked home for the overtime winner. 

“Jordan could have signed with Calgary after his junior year, but he wanted to try and win a championship and came back as a senior,” Lucia said. “Honestly, if Jordan signed, we may not have won it.”

Ballard and Leopold were totally different players and people. Ballard was very physical with a cannon from the point. Leopold was a smooth skater with great hands. Ballard was an Iron Range boy from Baudette, Minn., whose parents own a fishing resort on Lake of the Woods ( Leopold was a Minneapolis suburban boy from Golden Valley.

“They were just so gifted,” Lucia said. “Both had the big, thick legs. I mean, Keith as a freshman weighed 205 pounds. But what made them different than others was they were both good offensively and could go in and contain and eliminate in their own end.

“You don’t get a couple 200-pound guys like that. In college hockey, you see a lot of 170-, 180-pound guys that are real good offensively but struggle in their own end.”

Leopold left to sign with Calgary after his senior year. Ballard stayed two more years, winning a second national title in 2003.

“When those guys left – Ballard, Leopold and Martin – I said, ‘Well, I don’t know if we’ll have a D core that good again,’” Lucia said. “When you have three regular NHLers, one of them is always on the ice. Keith as a freshman, he was aspiring to be Jordan and they kind of followed the same timeline – all-rookie, all-league, all-American.”

Leopold’s signed for one year in Florida. Ballard has six more years and is part of the Panthers’ young core hoping to end the team’s playoff drought. Like Ballard, David Booth is signed through 2015. Rostislav Olesz is signed through 2014. Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss are signed through 2013.

“I’m excited for the year and the future,” Ballard said. “They’ve committed to me long-term, and I have to do my part to be part of the group that makes a change and gets this team going in the right direction.

“We were close last year and we were disappointed we didn’t get the points needed down the stretch to get it done. No excuse this year. We’ve got to get it done.”

Michael Russo covered the Florida Panthers from 1995-2005 for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and now covers the Minnesota Wild for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

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