Ballard, other blueliners wait their turn
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- He was, once upon a time, the 11th overall pick in the 2002 NHL draft.
He has played in World Championships and earned big-time contracts.
He has been "the man."
On this day, though, while the Vancouver Canucks rested after their dramatic 1-0 victory against the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, veteran defenseman Keith Ballard was on the ice at the University of British Columbia with the rest of the healthy scratches and minor league call-ups, working on passing and skating drills.
You could hardly find a happier man anywhere in the hockey world.
In fact, Ballard said, he has never had as much fun in his hockey career, and that's saying something, given that he has appeared in just nine of the Canucks' 19 postseason games this spring.
"No question," he said. "I never won before. I haven't been on a successful team since college. You get away from that feeling a little bit and you forget what it feels like and you forget what it's like to go into every game knowing that you have a great shot at winning."
With Dan Hamhuis injured early in the second period of Game 1 after a big hit on Milan Lucic, Ballard may yet get a chance to taste his first Stanley Cup finals action in Saturday's Game 2. Hamhuis, one of the team's most important defenders given the number of minutes he plays, usually goes against opposing teams' top forwards.
Vancouver coach Alain Vigneault was tight-lipped about Hamhuis' availability for Game 2 -- "Day to day, that's as specific as we get," the coach said Thursday.
Regardless, Ballard approaches each day the same: He prepares as though he will play. In that regard, he is no different than young defenseman Chris Tanev, who has drawn in for two postseason games, and Andrew Alberts, who dressed for three playoff games, and Aaron Rome, who was in the Game 1 lineup Wednesday after being a healthy scratch early in the playoffs.
"This whole month and a half it's been going on, and being in and out of the lineup, I think I've approached every day the same and tried to prepare," Ballard said. "If you get into the series, it doesn't matter if it's Game 1 and you're starting it or you get in late in the series, you have to be ready to go. You keep going on and on in the series and the games just get bigger.
"It's unfair to your teammates and everybody else if you're not ready to go. I think all the guys that aren't playing have been approaching that exactly the same way and we're working real hard."
The Canucks are blessed with terrific depth along the blue line. It has been the one key difference between this squad and recent versions of the team that could not get over the playoff hump.
When Christian Ehrhoff was hurt in the Western Conference finals, Ballard stepped into the breach. Sami Salo also missed time this spring with a groin injury. Now, it may be Hamhuis who is out after he was last seen limping down the tunnel into the Canucks' dressing room Wednesday night.
"Well, we've used, I think, 13 or 14 defensemen this year," Vigneault said. "We have a lot of confidence in all our players. Right now, we have Keith, Andrew Alberts and [others] that have played some minutes with us this year and have done a real good job. If we need somebody to play minutes, I'm confident they'll be able to step in and do a real good job for us."
One might wonder at the dynamics of the boys on the ice at UBC on Thursday, given the intense competition for ice time on this talented team. Every single one of them would give a limb to see their name in the starting lineup for Game 2, for any game in the Cup finals.
"You want so bad to be out there," Ballard said. "You want to be coming off the ice after a big win and in the locker room after the game with the guys and playing a hard-fought game."
Yet Ballard said there remains a very real sense of camaraderie even though they all want to play. Beyond that, though, what they want more are wins.
"That's what this is all about," Ballard said. "I think most guys are the same way. You want to contribute and you want to be that go-to guy, that real important piece. But at the end of the day, you have to accept the role you're in and do it the best you can. We're all trying to get to the same place. We're all trying to get our name on the Cup. I think that goal far exceeds anything personal.
"We're pulling for the same thing. You're not sitting out hoping a guy makes a mistake so you can get in the lineup or hoping a guy gets hurt. That's just not how this team works."
It is not always that way. On many teams, the self-preservation gene, the "me" gene is stronger than the "we" gene.
"This team, I can honestly say that everybody likes each other. Someone may look at that as, 'Yeah, they should, they're on the same team.' But in all reality, it very rarely happens," Ballard said. "It's a very special group, and I saw that from the day I got here. It's a very close group. Everyone's focused on the same thing."
It cannot be easy to put aside the personal disappointment that comes from not being part of the lineup on a nightly basis and accept something less for the greater good. But Ballard insisted it is worth it.
"You can't allow the personal feelings and negative feelings or anything like that get in to your head. Once that starts, it's hard to stop," Ballard said. "Then you start making excuses for yourself and that can't happen."
Certainly Ballard's perspective has a lot to do with his impressive attitude about his situation. Ballard, 28, broke into the NHL with the Phoenix Coyotes after the lockout. Originally a Buffalo Sabres prospect, Ballard had never played in an NHL playoff game until this spring, after being dealt from the Coyotes to Florida before signing with Vancouver this past offseason.
"After playing five years without any taste of the playoffs and getting in and being on this run that we've had this year, it's been fun," he said. "There's been some personal ups and downs, but this has been so much fun. I've enjoyed every minute of it."
And why not?
Any other season at this point in time, Ballard was already looking forward to the next season. Now, at the very least, he prepares every day for a game that may take him closer to a Stanley Cup, regardless of whether he will be in the lineup.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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