Ballard returns home after eight NHL seasons

Ex-Gophers player Keith Ballard signed a two-year deal with the Wild on July 4.

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Keith Ballard covers Minnesota Wilds center Kyle Brodziak in an NHL hockey game Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

Daily File Photo, Anthony Kwan

Vancouver Canucks defenseman Keith Ballard covers Minnesota Wild’s center Kyle Brodziak in an NHL hockey game Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

by Dane Mizutani

Former Gophers defenseman Keith Ballard performed his best Zach Parise and Ryan Suter impressions July 4 when he signed a two-year, $3 million contract with the Minnesota Wild.

It wasn’t anywhere close to the media circus the coveted Parise-Suter duo created with their signings exactly a year ago. But to his family about 300 miles north of the Twin Cities, this acquisition might have been just as important.

Ballard, an eight-year NHL veteran who recently was bought out of his contract with the Vancouver Canucks, hails from Baudette, Minn. He said most of his family was together July 4 when he called home to tell them the news.

“It all happened so fast,” his sister Jessie Ballard recalled. “He called us, and we were at a big family get-together, and everyone was really, really pumped.

“It’s awesome to have him close to home again.”

Ballard said while he is excited to play closer to home, this career decision had nothing to do with the fact that Minnesota is his home state. Ballard said his career needed a change of scenery and Minnesota provided that fit.

“It seemed like a good hockey fit with where they felt I could contribute and what role I’d play,” he said. “It all seemed to fall into place, and it was a really exciting time.”

Ballard played a vital role on the Gophers teams that won national titles in 2002 and 2003. He said those memories are still entrenched in his mind.

He left the Gophers after the 2004 season and played in the American Hockey League for a season before he reached the NHL.

There, he developed into a standout two-way defenseman with the Phoenix Coyotes and Florida Panthers. Ballard averaged nearly 30 points per season and played in 97 percent of games with those teams.

Ballard was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 2010 and struggled in three seasons with that squad. The Canucks bought out his contract this offseason, which had two years and about $8.4 million left on it.

That opened the door for the Wild.

Wild General Manager Chuck Fletcher is familiar with the skill Ballard brings to the table and said he’s confident Ballard can return to that high level.

“I remember working in Pittsburgh, and we’d go down and play the Florida Panthers, and they would play Keith Ballard against Sidney Crosby,” Fletcher said at a press conference July 5. “And it was a tough night for Sidney Crosby.”

Ballard will join a young group of defensemen headed by Suter and breakout blueliner Jonas Brodin. Ballard will likely fill a role on the second or third defensive pair, but the depth chart is yet to be determined.

Fletcher said Ballard will fill a critical role with his experience amid the youthful contingent.

“We wanted to add another quality player, and Keith is certainly a player that … brings a lot of experience to the table,” Fletcher said. “He’s a guy that can skate, he can move the puck, and he competes.”

Jessie Ballard said the family has seen Keith play at least one game at the Xcel Energy Center every season of his career, but she said it will obviously be a lot easier now.

“It’ll be really nice because a drive to Minneapolis is nothing compared to two flights and a hop, skip and a jump all the way to Vancouver,” she said.

Ballard said he’ll have to balance his hockey career with his family now more than ever. He said he’s more than up for that challenge.

“We’ll be able to see a lot of people that we don’t see during the season,” he said. “They’ll be able to watch games, but it’s a fine line between enjoying that side of it and letting it become a distraction.

“That’s something we’ve also taken into consideration, but I really couldn’t be happier to be back.”