Grizzlies’ Ballard brings title experience to Utah

When asked what his favorite sports moment is, Keith Ballard quickly responds that the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers’ national championship in 2002 is far and away the most memorable.

Ballard joined the Gophers and proved to be an important part of their success en route to their championship. Now, with Ballard in a different shade of red, the Utah Grizzlies hope that he will be an equally important part in their success for the 2004-05 season.

The Gophers’ NCAA championship was the culmination of hard work, determination, and dedication on behalf of Ballard and his teammates. In 1997-98 and 1998-99, the Golden Gophers suffered the program’s first losing seasons since 1977. From that low point the Gophers steadily improved and built a national championship.

Gophers head coach Don Lucia said, “The team went from a tough couple of years to a national championship. They had great character, great leaders, [and] great team camaraderie, as good as I’ve ever seen.”

In 2001-02 Ballard joined the team on their way to the top and added strength and experience in the defensive zone. He was named to the conference all-rookie team in the WCHA as a freshman as Minnesota won its first national championship since 1979. The Gophers made it back-to-back titles in 2003, and following the 2003-04 season Ballard was named the Gophers’ most valuable player by his teammates.

His last season in college he was an All-American, an All-WCHA First Team selection and a finalist Hobey Baker Memorial Award, awarded to the top collegiate hockey player in the U.S. Ballard came to a team with building momentum and was able to contribute to two national championships.

The Baudette, Minn., native left high school after his junior year to join Team USA’s National Development Team Program (the NTDP) in Ann Arbor, Mich. While in Ann Arbor he was a member of the 2000 U.S. Junior Under-18 World Championship Team, and after a year in the NTDP, he was a top prospect and signed with the USHL’s Omaha Lancers for his senior season.

There, Ballard helped the Lancers capture the national junior championship.

Ballard credits his involvement in the World Championships last summer as the key to making his decision to go pro, foregoing his fourth and final year at Minnesota.

“Playing in the World Championships gave me a new level of confidence especially playing with that level of player and knowing I could compete and that I belonged,” said Ballard.

Ballard, the 11th overall pick in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, was acquired by the Phoenix Coyotes from Colorado as part of a five-player deal that included Derek Morris and Chris Gratton. On June 8, he signed a three-year contract with the Coyotes. Since his time at the University of Minnesota, “Keith Ballard was arguably the best defensemen in NCAA hockey in 2003-04,” said Coyotes general manager Michael Barnett.

“He was a critical inclusion in our trade with Colorado late last season. He joins the Coyotes from the University of Minnesota where he played an integral part in the Gophers’ national championships. We look forward to watching Keith develop and contribute to winning in a Coyotes uniform.”

His transition to the professional ranks has been aided somewhat by the abundance of Gophers on the Grizzlies roster, including Erik Westrum and Jeff Taffe.

On the year, the 5-foot-11, 204-pound defenseman has tallied three assists in nine games, and he was Utah’s nominee for the Reebok AHL Rookie of the Month in October.

As a part of the Utah Grizzlies, Ballard finds himself in a situation similar to that in Minnesota and the Lancers. The Grizzlies are, for the larger part, the same team that laced up the skates in Springfield last season. Just like his other teams, Ballard is on the roster of a team that is building momentum. He has the talent and leadership to make a real impact on the Grizzlies roster, and hopefully he will be able to change his favorite hockey moment from an NCAA championship to an AHL championship — and the Calder Cup.