Keith Ballard isn’t looking for sympathy. As a well-paid defenceman on the top team in the National Hockey League, the Vancouver Canucks blueliner knows he’s got it good. But six years into his NHL career, the 28-year-old has never had the chance to experience the best part of one of the best jobs in the world. No, as he closes in on 500 games played in the NHL, Ballard has only played regular-season hockey and hasn’t had the opportunity to do what all hockey players dream of: compete for the Stanley Cup.
After breaking into the league with the Phoenix Coyotes and never coming close to a playoff berth in his three years in the desert, Ballard was shipped to Florida, where the Panthers failed to qualify for the postseason in his two years there.
It wasn’t until a trade to the Canucks on the eve of last year’s NHL entry draft that Ballard found himself part of a franchise that was headed in the right direction. And little did he know at the time that he was coming to a team that would set all kinds of franchise records and lay claim to the first Presidents' Trophy in the organization’s 40-year history. The Baudette, Minnesota, native just wanted a chance to experience playoff hockey for the first time since his college days ended in 2004.
And that wish is about to be granted.
“I’m very excited,” he tells the Straight after a recent team practice at Rogers Arena. “You don’t dream of playing until April 10 and then going home for the summer. I’ve done that too much. That makes for a long, long, frustrating summer. I’ve watched playoff hockey on TV, and that’s as close as I’ve got. A lot of guys will say they don’t pay attention or they don’t watch, but I watch. I love it because it’s great hockey. You see everyone elevate their game, and the intensity is so much more. There is importance on every play. As a player, that’s what you live to be a part of.”
Ballard thought he was going to get that chance two seasons ago, during his first year in Florida. The Panthers made a late charge for the postseason, only to have their bid snuffed out—not by an opponent but by a mathematician. Florida and the Montreal Canadiens finished with identical records that season, but after falling short when the tiebreaking numbers were crunched, Ballard’s squad wound up on the outside looking in as the playoffs began.
“That was really disappointing,” he recalls. “We had what everybody thought was the 15th-place team in the East, and we had a good run. It was one of those teams where we got almost everything out of it we could, so it was disappointing. We found out on the final weekend of the season that we didn’t make it.”
Usually around this time of year, Ballard has been making plans to go overseas to represent Team USA at the World Hockey Championship. He’s done it four times as a way of prolonging his season and measuring himself against other top players. He says he’s enjoyed the experience but always knew it was no substitute for the hockey that was being played around the NHL each spring.
And last year at this time, Ballard would have loved to have worn the Stars and Stripes for a fifth time, but he underwent hip surgery immediately after Florida’s season came to a premature conclusion.
This time around, however, Ballard gets to leave all of those frustrations in the past. His Vancouver Canucks are not only in the playoffs but enter the tournament as front-runners for the Stanley Cup. On and off the ice, Ballard knows the situation he finds himself in now is about as far removed as possible from his days in Phoenix and Florida.
“This is a loud building, and our fans are awesome,” he says of his first taste of life in a crazed hockey market. “I asked someone the other day, ”˜How much louder can it get?’ I’m excited. I’ve thought about it, but there’s only so much thinking about it and asking questions about it. You just have to be in there and experience it, and I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”
With the depth the Canucks boast on their blueline, Ballard’s role in the weeks—perhaps months—ahead isn’t clearly defined. His season has been a bumpy ride, with injuries and an ongoing battle for ice time. But to his credit, he’s been a consummate professional through the rough patches and a popular teammate in the locker room.
In the eyes of many, Ballard hasn’t lived up to expectations for a guy making $4.2 million, and one for whom the organization paid a hefty price. He hasn’t produced the kind of numbers he has in past years. Then again, he’s never been on a team so stacked with talent ahead of him on the blueline.
None of that, however, seems to matter to Ballard. Clearly, he just wants to play and help the cause, and he says he’s ready to do whatever is asked of him as this playoff push he’s thought about for so long is finally about to begin. “I’m not too concerned about individual things like minutes or numbers or anything like that,” he says. “I love being here and being part of a first-place team and contributing to the success we’ve had all year. It’s a great feeling, whether it’s blocking a shot or taking a hit to make a play. Just knowing that you’re a part of this is special.”
And if all goes according to plan for the Canucks, Ballard’s first taste of Stanley Cup playoff hockey will be as special as it gets.
Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter.