ST. LOUIS – Keith Ballard played his last game this season — and maybe his career — on Dec. 9, but the defenseman will be taking the ice this week to help out with the Wild's soon-to-be-arriving Black Aces.
At the invitation of Wild coach Mike Yeo, Ballard, who suffered his fifth documented concussion in five years last winter during a scary incident against the Islanders, will be going on the ice with the extra players coming from Iowa, the Wild's American Hockey League affiliate that finished its season Saturday.
"He's an important part of our group," Yeo said of the 32-year-old former Gopher who has played 604 NHL games. "I told him I want him part of our meetings, I want him in the locker room and I want him around the guys. I feel bad for him, and I think his experience can help those kids and it's a way of keeping him involved, too."
Ballard was flattered and hesitant at the same time.
"When you're playing in the playoffs, everybody's in that mind-set like a robot," Ballard said. "I told Mike I don't want to be a distraction or in the way, but it's great he wants me to be a part of it, and I'm looking forward to helping."
Ballard is still having concussion-like symptoms, but he said he should have no issues going on the ice and helping lead drills rather than being a part of them.
"I tried to skate two weeks ago and I made it 10 minutes. I got on the ice, and headaches and dizzy," Ballard said. "Everything I do at home and everything I do around here, I feel fine. Like even running the treadmill, doing sprints and summer training kind of stuff with the heart rate up, fine. I get on the ice, and not fine."
Asked if he has decided to retire, Ballard said: "There's too much stuff going on right now. I probably have a good idea where I'm at, but I'm going to wait."
This is one reason Yeo wants Ballard to help the Black Aces.
"Obviously we hope this is not the end, but if it is the end, I hope that he's OK with that decision, and who knows? If he does decide to retire, maybe he wants to get into coaching, and an opportunity like this will let him know if he'd like to go down that road," Yeo said.
Iowa was the worst team in the AHL this season and, for a second consecutive season, the worst team in the Western Conference. The Wild plans to bring several Iowa players to Minnesota for three or four days, then release the majority of players and likely at least keep forwards Brett Sutter, Tyler Graovac and Stephane Veilleux, defensemen Jon Blum and Stu Bickel and goalie John Curry as Black Aces.
Those players will practice separately from the Wild and likely not travel. But they're available to play in any playoff game if needed.
There was a last-second, fourth-line wrinkle Saturday when Justin Fontaine, who missed Friday's practice, showed up to Scottrade Center sick.
Because the Wild wanted a right-shot on the right wing, Jordan Schroeder made his playoff debut. That caused the Wild to scratch left winger Sean Bergenheim, who played well in Thursday's Game 1 victory, because, Yeo explained, the Wild needed a penalty killer with Fontaine out.
Matt Cooke, who missed Game 1 because of abdominal soreness, played his 104th career playoff game. Kyle Brodziak centered the two.
"That line actually had a couple of real good shifts in the third, a couple real good opportunities to tie it up," Yeo said after the Wild's 4-1 loss to the Blues.
Forwards Erik Haula and Ryan Carter and defenseman Nate Prosser were scratched.