There is no quick or easy way to get to Toronto from Baudette, Minn., but 18 years ago, the Ballard family took the time and effort to make that trip, in hopes of learning where their son Keith would be working someday.
After winning the NCAA title in his first year on the blue line for the Minnesota Gophers, Keith was expected to be picked in the 2002 NHL Draft somewhere late in the first round to the middle of the second round. In the myriad pre-draft interviews he did with nearly every NHL team, Ballard had one team with a selection in the teens and another selection in the 40s tell him that he definitely would not be their pick in the teens, but would hear his name called if he was still available in the middle of round two.
“We kind of figured 20 to around 35-40, somewhere in there,” Ballard recalled.
So the Ballards — Keith, his parents and sister — settled in to watch the first round mostly as spectators inside the home rink of the Toronto Maple Leafs, figuring they would pay closer attention when the selections in the late teens and 20s came around. They did not have to wait that long.
There was an early run on defensemen that night, with future NHL standouts Jay Bouwmeester, Joni Pitkanen and Ryan Whitney going third, fourth and fifth overall, respectively, and the Buffalo Sabres apparently wanted to shore up their back end as well. When the 11th overall pick came around, Ballard heard, “From the University of Minnesota…” over the public address system, and he mentally prepared to congratulate a Gophers teammate.
“Right away I thought, ‘maybe they’re taking Barry Tallackson.’ I think he went in the second round that year. I had no clue,” said Ballard, 37, who played 10 seasons in the NHL and is now retired, living in the Twin Cities suburbs. “It was great.”
The next hour was a blur, involving a trip to the stage for pictures and the requisite Sabres jersey to put on, a cattle call with the media, including a horde from Buffalo (which is a 90-minute drive from Toronto) and finally some quiet time and a nice dinner with his parents.
2020 remote draft
When the 2020 NHL Draft is conducted remotely over two days this week, current Gophers defenseman Brock Faber is expecting none of that. If the predictions of Faber going in the second or third round come true, he might not even know about it until after the team practices on Wednesday. The second through seventh rounds of the draft begin at 10:30 a.m. local time.
“By the time my name might get called, it will probably be the start of practice,” said Faber, who is from Maple Grove, Minn. “At night, I’ll probably head home, see my family, hopefully go to dinner and see my relatives. There’s no real plan to watch (the draft).”
In a normal year, the draft would have been held in June, in a NHL arena, with hordes of media and fans in attendance. Faber will not get that experience as a result of the pandemic, but has adopted the “it is what it is” attitude that has helped so many navigate the many temporary changes brought about by the pandemic.
“It would’ve been awesome to have been there in person,” Faber said of the draft, which was originally scheduled to be held in Montreal, but instead is being held remotely, similar to the NFL draft from last spring. “At the same time, it’s going to be special regardless. I’m just super excited to hear my name called and obviously a dream will come true at that point. And also it’s just the beginning.”
Holding up a Sabres jersey on a stage in Toronto was an anomaly in Ballard’s hockey career. Before he signed his first pro contract in 2004, his rights were traded twice, to Colorado and then to Phoenix (now Arizona) where Ballard began a decade-long NHL run. For him, and for every name called in this week’s NHL draft, it is indeed just the beginning.