Leader of the ‘D’ adds a ‘C’ to his jersey

Lou Raguse

In his three years as a Minnesota men’s hockey player, defenseman Keith Ballard has played with some prominent team captains. Jordan Leopold and Johnny Pohl shared the honor in 2001-02. Grant Potulny took over in 2002-03 and has carried the title into this season.

But on Jan. 30 against Wisconsin, with Potulny sidelined by an injury, Ballard was the player leading the Gophers onto the ice with the “C” emblazoned on his jersey.

Until Potulny returns, Ballard will continue to serve as captain at home, and fellow assistant captain Troy Riddle will take over the role on the road. During that time, Ballard said, he hopes to lead the team by changing nothing and doing what he’s done all season long.

“Really, the only thing that’s changed was the letter on my jersey,” Ballard said. “A lot of different guys have stepped up, and that’s why we’ve been able to stay successful even without Grant in the lineup.”

Ballard compared the situation to earlier this season when he was sidelined with an injury. Different players assumed new roles in his absence. When he returned, those players were performing at a higher level.

That’s encouraging for the team in regards to what they’ll be able to accomplish once Potulny returns. Until then, Ballard will try to keep the wheels turning.

He is currently fourth on the team in scoring despite missing seven games with a knee injury. His nine goals and 17 assists also combine to lead the WCHA in scoring by a defenseman.

Ballard’s ability to score from the blue line has drawn respect from opponents and praise from his coaches.

“He’s been our best player this year,” coach Don Lucia said. “I don’t think there’s any secret. I think he’s the best defenseman in our league, and he should be an All-American this year.”

Lucia also thinks Ballard has matured this season, doing away with his early-career tendency to get too anxious. This has also helped Ballard assume his leadership role, Lucia said.

While Ballard still occasionally lets his temper flare – he leads the team with 61 penalty minutes – his passion on the ice has an impact on his teammates.

“He’s a pretty intense leader,” fellow defenseman Chris Harrington said. “He expects a lot out of everybody else, because that’s what he expects out of himself.”

Harrington, who usually pairs with Ballard on the blue line, refers to him as the quarterback of the defensive corps.

When Paul Martin opted for the NHL before this season, the team’s defense was left more inexperienced than the Gophers had anticipated, and it became more important that Ballard would help the young players progress.

“Even though he’s so talented, he doesn’t try to race ahead of everyone else and create a gap on our team,” Harrington said. “That’s why our defense has been able to progress as a unit so well.”

In the last four games, Ballard has notched two goals and four assists. Now, in the home stretch of the regular season with the playoffs in sight, Ballard said he hopes to keep performing to the level of captains from years past.

“Guys like Jordan Leopold and Johnny Pohl – this was their time of year,” Ballard said. “Every game is important now, and big-time players step up and play like they are big-time.”