I played hockey for, well, let’s just say a long time. It started outdoors in Baudette, and the magic of the game took hold immediately. And truly, it never really left. I love seeing that same magic in the kids today with the Little Wild Learn to Play program, navigating this great sport our state treasures so dearly.
For me that love was fostered in the Lake of Woods Youth Hockey Association. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to win two NCAA titles at the University of Minnesota, and was able to experience a professional career for 10 NHL seasons and more than 600 games, including some great times while wearing the Minnesota Wild sweater.
There’s no question that achieving professional status marks some of the best seasons I’ve ever enjoyed in my hockey career, I have to admit, for me, that’s not really what it was about.
I can’t say I remember every goal I scored or assisted on in my life, but I can remember celebrating them with teammates and talking about them later in the locker room.
I can’t remember every shot I took against an NHL goaltender, but I can remember being outside on a frozen-over Lake of the Woods, working on that shot.
I couldn’t tell you my plus-minus, how many games we won or lost or how many minutes I averaged. What I can tell you is how much of my career I have cherished, thanks to the people I spent those times with. Bus rides with teammates, locker room banter, working together to give it your very all on the ice and leaving it all out there as a team—those are the stats worth noting.
"I couldn’t tell you my plus-minus, how many games we won or lost or how many minutes I averaged. What I can tell you is how much of my career I have cherished, thanks to the people I spent those times with."
This year I want you to make it your best season yet, but you won’t do that by focusing on the win-loss column. Instead, I want you to have the best season possible with your friends. I want you to make those memories and learn the game together. I’m excited to see this develop with my own three kids.
I want you to have the best season you can with your coaches. Learn from them. Develop your game and never bother them with requests for more ice time. Work hard at practice and games and show your coaches that you can give your best effort every shift.
I want you have to have the best season you can with your parents. They are your cheerleaders, you chauffers and the ones who make playing hockey possible. Enjoy the car rides to the rink jamming out to your favorite pregame tunes, not recapping ‘mistakes’ made the previous game. Enjoy the time together.
And lastly I want you to have the best season you can for yourself. Hockey is something that you love. It should always be fun. That love and fun should never go away. As long as you look forward to your time at the rink, you’ll never have regrets leaving it.
So go out there and have your best season yet. I know you can do it.
Keith Ballard is a former NHL defenseman who had 175 points (38 goals, 137 assists) in 604 career games. He won back-to-back national titles with the U of M in 2002 and 2003. Ballard retired in 2014 but can still be found at local rinks across the state as the Little Wild’s NHL alumni Learn to Play local manager.