On the Minnesota-Canadian border, 300 miles north of the Twin Cities, rests the sleepy town of Baudette. Dubbed the Walleye Capital of the World, its population balloons during the fishing seasons, both summer and winter, as anglers from far and wide descend on the city hoping to catch the big one.
During the summer, fishermen follow walleye moving from the Rainy River to Lake of the Woods, the bodies of waters separating Minnesota and Canada. In the winter the fish pursuit becomes a stationary affair, as locals scatter icehouses across the Rainy creating a transient icy metropolis.
When the river freezes, alongside the fishing huts another seasonal activity inhabits the river: Hockey. An outdoor rink on the Rainy is where Wild defenseman Keith Ballard honed his skills as a youngster.
While fishermen sat inside their shacks, shielded from the bitter northern cold, waiting to reel in a bite, Ballard and his friends would layer up and brave the elements for shinny hockey.
“I don’t know if I could do it now,” Ballard smiled. “I don’t know if I realized at the time how cold it was, some of those days skating outside in a rink with no heat. I’ve softened up a bit.”
While known for its pristine fishing holes, Baudette was an ideal place for a kid with a bottomless hockey appetite. With a population around 1,000, there was a lot of open ice, either on the river or at the local rink.
“I got into it when I was pretty young, all winter was playing hockey or skating,” Ballard said. “It’s a really small town. The ice wasn’t overly busy when we were kids so there was a lot of open ice. Whether you were by yourself or with five or 10 buddies, it was hockey all winter.”
With ice time that was as abundant as the fishing, the only hurdle for the youngster might’ve been getting to and from the rink, which was about 12 miles from his front door. However for Christmas, Ballard received a used snowmobile, and he and his pals would caravan to the rink without needing to rely on their parents for a ride.
“You pull up to the rink on the weekend and there’d be cars in the parking lot and five or six snowmobiles lined up next to them,” Ballard said. “When you’re 12 years old and you can ride your snowmobile to the rink, eat lunch there, and come home at dark, it’s a pretty good way to live.”
As Ballard and the local hockey players got older, their love of finding free ice only escalated. In high school, they had a key to the arena and skated well into the evening. Midnight games on the weekends were constant. If there weren’t enough skaters to make two full squads, they’d play small-ice games.
Without the confines of coaches and drills, refs or whistles, parents and rules, the rink was a haven. In these sessions, imagination and individual skills were placed at the forefront.
“You’d play those little one-on-one games and you develop a lot of creativity—there’s no structure,” Ballard reflected. “It’s hard to find open ice and free ice for kids now. There’s so much structure in practices and things like skating lessons. But that’s the way to go when you’re younger—just go out and play and have fun.”
Amusement in Ballard’s hometown wasn’t limited to the winter and rinks. Baudette and the surrounding area is nature’s jungle gym. Every day provided an outdoor adventure.
“The summers were awesome,” Ballard said. “Everything I did growing up was outside. Whether it was riding around on my bike; on the water either fishing or boating; or playing golf. All summer, I was outside.”
Before he gained notoriety as a professional hockey player, his last name was well known in Lake of the Woods County. His parents, Steve and Joanne, run Ballard’s Resort, a popular getaway on the Rainy River that caters to visiting fisherman and tourists.
The motto of the resort is, “Large Enough to Serve You, Small Enough to Know You,” which, in essence, is very much like the town of Baudette itself. Ballard can remember meeting visitors from all over, sharing their stories and making fast friends during the summer months.
“It was fun to grow up in that environment,” Ballard said. “I was always meeting new people, making new friends, if it was kids coming up with grandparents for the summer, it was a good experience.
“They’ll say that about a small town, ‘You know everybody.’ But you literally do know everybody.”
Soon, however, his hockey talents would outgrow the small town. He skated a season with the United States National Development Team in Ann Arbor, Mich., and then with the Omaha Lancers of the United States Hockey League (USHL) the following season.
The blueliner had a standout season with Omaha, earning First Team All-Star honors and skating in the 2001 USHL All-Star Game. He led the Lancers to the Clark Cup, as league playoff champions.
With his success on the ice, Division I colleges naturally came calling. It seems like every kid in the State of Hockey dreams of going to the University of Minnesota. But growing up in the northlands, another local school had Ballard’s eye.
“I was in-between Minnesota and (the University of) North Dakota for a long time growing up. There were times when I liked Minnesota and times when I like North Dakota better,” Ballard said. “UND was about two and a half hours from my house, so it’s actually closer than Minnesota.”
However, a visit to the U of M swayed him to choose the home-state school. At Minnesota, Ballard found a perfect fit both in hockey and socially. As a freshman, the upperclassmen took him under their wing.
“The first thing that sticks out to me was how well we were treated by the older guys,” Ballard said.
Those older guys included a blue line fitted with two future NHLers, Jordan Leopold and Paul Martin. Leopold would go on to win the Hobey Baker Award that year for the most outstanding player in college hockey.
“To be able to watch guys like Leo (Leopold) and Paul Martin, and learn from them and see how they play and approach the game; I was fortunate to come into that situation,” Ballard said.
In his freshman year, Ballard was a key contributor and was named to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association All-Rookie Team. He also helped the Golden Gophers to the NCAA National Championship, a feat the team repeated in his sophomore season.
In his third year at Minnesota, Ballard averaged nearly a point per game, scoring 11 goals and 36 points in 37 games. He earned WCHA First All-Star Team, WCHA All-Tournament Team and NCAA West First All-Star Team honors. Ballard also was one of 10 finalists for the Hobey.
After three standout college seasons and two national championships, he decided to forgo his senior year and turned pro. With the NHL lockout, he spent 2004-05 in the American Hockey League with the Utah Grizzlies.
On Oct. 5, 2005, he made his NHL debut with the Phoenix Coyotes, scoring in his first game against the Vancouver Canucks. Ballard would play three seasons with the Coyotes, followed by two with the Florida Panthers, before being traded to Vancouver prior to the 2010-11 season. The blueliner skated in three injury-plagued season with the Canucks and, this past summer, Vancouver bought him out.
When it came time to look for a new home, signing with the Wild seemed like a natural fit.
“There was a comfort level with guys on the team,” said Ballard, who skates with many of the Wild players in the summer. “Last year with the lockout, skating with the them everyday. I wanted to go somewhere there would be as little adjustment as possible.”
Ballard has lived in the Twin Cities area since his college days and is now raising a family with his wife, Jamie. Their daughter, Ava, is three and a half, while their son, Lukas, is five months old. Not having to pick up and move the family was a bonus when signing with Minnesota.
In the offseason, Ballard brings the family back to Baudette a few times a summer. Although, he jokes, the five-hour car ride can be six-plus with a couple of small kids in the back seat. And even though his hockey career has taken him to different cities around the globe, he still has a special place in his heart for his hometown.
“I’ve really appreciated the support I got hockey-wise from everybody,” Ballard said. “Going back in the summer, running into people and everybody wants to talk hockey and see how you’re doing. Just hearing from my parents, running into people, saying hi or asking how we’re doing. It’s really cool, the support, even while growing up there.”