Once his contract had been bought out, Keith Ballard had choices. There were other teams interested in giving the former Gophers defenseman and Baudette, Minn., native a chance to hit the reset button on his NHL career, but none could offer what the Wild could: the comfort of coming home.
So it wasn’t much of a choice at all. After a difficult three-season tenure in Vancouver ended last summer, Ballard, 30, brought his family back to his native state and joined a team filled with players he already knew. That has eased his adjustment during the first week of training camp, allowing him to show the Wild how his skating skills and smart, experienced play can enhance the defensive corps.
His trials in Vancouver — where Ballard spent many nights watching from the press box as a healthy scratch — do not seem to have left any scars on his psyche. Three years of working with Minnesota-based sports psychologist Shaun Goodsell have helped Ballard maintain his equanimity, preparing him for a fresh start. Being in such familiar territory has revitalized him, too, allowing him to find new joy in the game in the place where he first discovered it.
“I had some ups and downs in Vancouver, but that happens to a lot of people,” said Ballard, who skated with many Wild players during his summers in Minnesota. “If you play the game long enough, you’re going to end up in situations where it’s not exactly what you hoped for. But I learned a lot there, and I’ve got a lot of good memories and great friends.
“With every new city and team, there are adjustments. But I feel great. I’m very excited to be here and very excited for the next chapter.”
He’s not the only one. Wild forward Zach Parise battled Ballard during their college days, when Parise was a phenom at North Dakota and Ballard was an All-America for the Gophers. Parise said he much prefers having the Baudette native on the same side.
“He’s such a good skater,” Parise said. “He’s the kind of guy who’s tough to beat even if you do catch him a little bit out of position. He also brings some feistiness, and we need some of that on the back end. I think he’ll help us a lot.”
The Wild signed Ballard in July to a two-year deal worth $3 million. The team pounced just after Vancouver bought out the final two years of his contract, ending a three-season run in which Ballard managed only three goals and 16 points. Last season, he played in 36 of 48 games and never got into the playoff lineup as the Canucks were swept in the first round.
Ballard had averaged 30 points per season during three years with Phoenix and two with Florida. He came to Vancouver after having hip surgery and got off to a poor start; dwindling ice time and other injuries prevented him from climbing out of a rut. Despite his situation, Ballard remained diligent and professional.
“I think it was probably the toughest couple of years of his career, even though he never showed it,” said Canucks center Ryan Kesler, who played with Ballard throughout his tenure in Vancouver. “He always came to the rink with a smile and worked hard. He’s one of the best guys I’ve played with.”
Ballard is the oldest defenseman on the Wild roster, and Parise noted that his experience will be a big benefit on the blue line. Coach Mike Yeo said Ballard is still adjusting to the Wild’s style, but he is learning quickly.
“He’s been a great leader all through camp,” Yeo said. “The way he competes, the way he skates, he’s got a real presence out there on the ice.”
Ballard cited his work with Goodsell for helping him deal with his struggles in Vancouver. They confer regularly, during the season and after, on issues large and small. With everyone in the NHL in superb physical shape, Ballard said, giving the same attention to training the mind can provide an edge.
His current focus is getting — and maintaining — the proper mind-set to play his best every night. Ballard said his experiences have made him adaptable, and he has faith that his strong skating and sound defense will help him reinvigorate his career.
Being in such a happy place can’t hurt, either. Only 20 days after he signed with the Wild, Ballard’s wife, Jamie, gave birth to their second child, just one more reason to celebrate.
“I’m comfortable here,” he said. “I’m at home.”