Keith Ballard didn’t realize Wednesday was the anniversary of his last hockey game until he called to make an appointment with a neurologist, and the receptionist asked the date of his last concussion.
It has been one year since that frightening sight on the Xcel Energy Center ice, a headfirst collision with the top of the boards between the benches that left Ballard convulsing and with three facial fractures. It has been one year since that Dec. 9 incident, yet the former Gophers great and Coyotes, Panthers, Canucks and Wild defenseman still experiences symptoms “here and there” from the latest concussion he had during his hockey career.
Ballard is back in college at the University of Minnesota, where he is pursuing a degree in sports management. If he stares at a computer for long hours as he writes a paper, it’ll sometimes trigger dizziness, fogginess, “that in-a-daze feeling.” If he overexerts himself physically, he’ll sometimes feel “a little confusion, bad sleeping and headaches.”
“The headaches aren’t bad like they were,” Ballard said by phone this week. “The last time I had them really bad was in August. I didn’t do any real physical activity in the summer other than going for walks, but nothing close to summer hockey training. One day, we were playing tag with the kids outside and I started getting real dizzy and bad headaches. I had to lay down, and that seemed to trigger other things.
“Chopping wood one day, I suddenly had to stop.”
Ballard, who turned 33 a few weeks ago, never will play another NHL game. He is making his retirement from a 10-year, 604-game NHL career official, and the husband and father of two sounds at peace with that decision.
“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.”
It has been a slow process, but Ballard sees doctors often and has found one in Apple Valley, a chiropractor named Kerry Johnson, who has done wonders.
“It’s gotten a lot better,” Ballard said. “My day-to-day stuff is good for the most part.”
The subject of concussions is suddenly a big topic in sports because of the potential long-term effects. The recent deaths of players such as Derek Boogaard and Steve Montador, who had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) from years of head trauma, have put this in the public eye.
Ballard thinks he was diagnosed with five concussions during his career, the first in 2010 when his head hit the glass on a clean check. Ballard “wobbled off the ice in a daze.”
Those five don’t include the times he got his “bell rung.”
“I remember my first year I got in a fight with Billy Guerin and he got me pretty good,” Ballard said. “It was one of those where the rest of the game you’re a little foggy.”
Dozens of former players have joined a lawsuit alleging the NHL concealed the risks of concussions and brain diseases from players. Ballard hasn’t paid a lot of attention to the lawsuit, and it “hasn’t crossed my mind” to join.
“When I came in, I don’t know if the guys 20 years ago have a different story, but you understood it,” Ballard said. “Maybe it’s a byproduct of being a young player and you want to stay in the lineup, you don’t want to be injured, so you might not mention the little stuff.
“If I make a full recovery from this concussion, I’ll chalk it up to good luck because, I’ll be honest, if I was hit like that again, I’m freaked out about what could happen the next time.”
Ballard looks back at his career with pride. Drafted 11th overall in 2002 by the Buffalo Sabres, Ballard came to the Gophers as one of the most elite recruits in the country.
Joining a “crazy good” left side of the blue line with Jordan Leopold and Paul Martin, Ballard won the first of two consecutive NCAA championships in 2002. A 2004 Hobey Baker Award finalist and All-America selection, Ballard ranks seventh in goals (33) and 12th in points (100) by a defenseman in Gophers history.
Those three years at the U, the Canucks’ 2010 run to the Stanley Cup Final, his first game with the Wild and his first NHL game for the Coyotes in Vancouver in 2005 are his best memories.
“I happened to score that game, Wayne Gretzky was my coach and my teammates were guys like Brett Hull and Shane Doan. So cool for me,” Ballard said.
Gophers head coach Don Lucia and associate coach Mike Guentzel call Ballard one of the great “program guys” and “character people” in Gophers history. Ballard has given back to the program financially and with his time.
“He’s just such a quality person,” Lucia said.
“Such an emotional competitor,” Guentzel added.
Lucia’s favorite “Keith Ballard moment” came during the Gophers’ 2002 WCHA first-round playoff sweep of North Dakota.
“Keith could run his mouth with the best of them, especially when we played UND,” Lucia said. “In Game 2, Keith got into a scuffle to the right of our bench and he ends up pulling one of their defenseman’s jerseys right over his head. And when I say over his head, I mean completely over the top of his head down the front like he was pulling it off.
“As the guy’s in the midst of trying to get the jersey back over, Keith takes off, joins the play and ends up scoring the game-winning goal in overtime,” Lucia said, laughing.
Ballard is ready to get on with the next phase of his life. The full-time student is taking 15 credits this semester (he made a big presentation at school Tuesday night) and needs an additional 13 next semester to graduate. That will include what’s bound to be a fun internship with his old agent, Ben Hankinson, at Octagon Hockey in the spring.
Does Ballard want to be an agent?
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Everyone always asks, ‘What do you want to do? What do you want to do?’ I’ve been doing my dream job for the last how many years, so it’s something I haven’t narrowed down.
“I’ll either love it or know this isn’t for me. Whatever I do next will be a little out of my comfort zone, and I’m very excited about that.”