ST. PAUL, Minn. — Keith Ballard has two children and a wife at home. He’d prefer to recognize them when his NHL playing career is over.
"I don’t want to be putting myself in a position where in 10 years I can’t remember their names and can’t get through a day functioning normally," the oft-concussed defenseman said Tuesday morning ahead of his reappearance in the Wild lineup. "That’s the scary part of these things."
So even after initially shrugging off trainers following the huge hit from behind he took from Blackhawks enforcer Brandon Bollig, Ballard and the Minnesota medical staff were cautious last Friday. He ended up suffering a minor concussion that kept him out for the rest of that Game 4 clash as well as Game 5 Sunday in Chicago.
But in a world where concussion research has yielded troubling information about the injury’s long-term effects, Ballard’s just fine being overly cautious.
Even in the midst of a heated Stanley Cup playoffs series. And even with the professional athlete’s mind-set of "perform at all costs."
"We were trying to be pretty smart about it," said Ballard, who will start in place of Nate Prosser on Tuesday night in the Wild’s second elimination situation of the postseason. "I’d been through that before, been down that road a couple times, and the more you kind of learn about these things and the more information that’s coming out, the long-term effects, they’re not worth it to put yourself in that situation."
In his nine-year career, Ballard has suffered at least four concussions and a handful of other ailments characterized as "upper-body injuries." Two of his concussions have come this season — the first on Oct. 15 when a puck hit him in the face.
A concussion in 2010 while playing for Vancouver sidelined him for five games. Another, in 2012, ended his second season with the Canucks.
Over time, he’s learned to identify his symptoms in hopes of preventing lasting damage to his brain.
"It’s not an injury that you necessarily are in a lot of pain or anything," Ballard said. "You get some headaches here and there. They can all vary, too."
But he’s heard the horror stories. The late Derek Boogaard’s accidental overdose from a mixture of the drug oxycodone and alcohol. The careers of Chris Pronger, Marc Savard, Eric Lindros and Scott Stevens ended due to repeated blows to the head.
Like the former Wild forward Boogaard, fellow enforcers Rick Rypien and Wade Belak died in their 20s. Rypien was found to have reportedly committed suicide, and all three dealt with substance and alcohol abuse. Their deaths sparked debate across the hockey world about the NHL’s responsibility in dealing with concussions and their aftermath.
Researchers discovered Boogaard had chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE, a degenerative brain disease commonly associated with head injuries from contact sports or military combat. CTE commonly includes symptoms of dementia, memory loss, confusion, aggression and depression years after the initial trauma.
The subject of head injuries remains one of great controversy in hockey, football and other contact sports today. Just last month, a group of former NHL players filed a class-action lawsuit alleging the league has glorified fighting and downplayed the risk of resulting head injuries.
"It’s terrible," Ballard said. "It is a part of the game, and you’re not going be able to avoid them. The one I had earlier this year, I got a puck in the face. That happens, and you just have to understand the circumstances and understand the long-term effects."
Starting with commissioner Gary Bettman’s "five-point plan" instituted in March 2011, the league has attempted reduce concussions in the game. Trainers operate under stricter protocols that include thorough testing for symptoms, and equipment makers continue to develop helmets that better protect a player’s skull.
"I would say it’s changed a great deal, and for the better of the game and the better of the players," Wild coach Mike Yeo said after the team’s morning skate Tuesday. "The players are the ones that are putting on the show. They’re what people come to see, and they’re the commodity that we should be trying to protect here."
The second-period hit that knocked Ballard out of Game 4 cost Bollig a two-game suspension. The league ruled he intentionally checked Ballard from behind.
Officials assessed Bollig a two-minute minor penalty for boarding.
Ballard said the hit wasn’t "overly malicious" and wasn’t sore over not hearing from Bollig afterward.
"Too much gets made of the whole ‘did he text you? Or did he –‘" Ballard said. "I don’t give a (expletive). I honestly don’t. That’s what happens, right? I’ve hit guys, and they’ve been injured. I don’t think it was an overly malicious kind of hit. It was probably a dumb play, but that stuff doesn’t really matter to me."
After returning to the ice for practice Monday, Ballard will again replace Prosser, who in 10 playoff games has yet to record a point. Like Ballard, left winger Matt Moulson practiced Monday and skated Tuesday but won’t dress for Game 6.
Goalie Darcy Kuemper, who’s been out since Game 7 of the first round with a head injury of his own, participated in the team’s morning skate and will back up Ilya Bryzgalov Tuesday night.
Defenseman Ryan Suter didn’t skate Tuesday morning, but that’s because he was at a routine dentist’s appointment, Yeo said.
Suter, Ballard and a defensive unit that allowed 37 total shots on goal in Games 3 and 4 at the Xcel Energy Center ought to behoove Minnesota in its quest to erase a second straight 3-2 series deficit. It’s a position the Wild’s well accustomed to after outlasting Colorado in seven games during the Western Conference quarterfinals.
"Our survival instincts have been much stronger than our killer instincts," the coach said.
Said left wing Zach Parise: "I don’t know why that is. We have responded very well. When we’ve needed to win games, when we’ve needed to play really well, we’ve done it."