For Keith Ballard, it was an escape from the NHL's version of Alcatraz. For Dan Hamhuis, it came by choice, a homecoming forged in free agency.
The Vancouver Canucks' major acquisitions on the blueline this summer are delighted to be in a hockey hotbed, and are eager to play for a contending team in a market where the word ice doesn't precede references to the sport.
Both have come from non-traditional markets, and both have had to prepare themselves, and their families, for the fishbowl environment in British Columbia, where a game-losing mistake - no matter how subtle - won't escape notice. To use a baseball analogy, both have proven that they can get major-league hitters out, now they have to prove that they can do the same under the bright lights of Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.
Ballard, who came from the Florida Panthers via the Phoenix Coyotes, said he so far sensed nothing but excitement, although he concedes that the day is coming when he commits an error and becomes the fans' whipping boy.
"It's going to happen. It's inevitable," he said Sunday after practising at the South Okanagan Events Centre. "That's part of it. The biggest part of being a player is not letting that affect you. But that's easy for me to say because I've never been in this market."
Ballard said his wife, Jamie, grew tired of attending games in Florida because the building was half-empty, losing sapped the fun, and because "there was no community excitement." Both husband and wife are from Minnesota, the State of Hockey, and the trade to Vancouver was chicken soup for their stick-and-puck souls.
Ballard was acquired on draft day, when the Canucks parted with veterans Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner and a first-round draft pick. After five years of missing the postseason, Ballard was happy to land with a strong team, but he says he is keeping an eye on the Canucks stars and how they handle the pressure of playing in a city where hockey matters.
"I couldn't have hand-picked a better spot," he said. "All across Canada, fans are educated. A lot of them have played the game, and a lot of them are around the game and are very passionate about the game."
Case in point: Two years ago in the playoffs, fan favourite and B.C. native Willie Mitchell turned the puck over in his own zone, leading to a critical goal in an eventual series loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. Mitchell played the puck up the boards, as defencemen are taught from a young age, but this was the rare case when using the middle of the ice was the safer route. The fans recognized that, and Mitchell was skewered on open-line shows.
Canucks assistant Rick Bowness, who coached Ballard in Phoenix, sat down his former protégé this summer and explained what to expect from the change. He didn't do the same with Hamhuis, a free-agent addition from the Nashville Predators, because the Smithers, B.C., native knows exactly what he is getting into, having grown up around the Canucks.
"There's a healthy pressure to perform at a high level, on a consistent basis," Bowness said when asked about his message.
Hamhuis, 27, signed a six-year deal, saying he would have stayed in Music City had the Preds been able to come to contract terms, and had his home province team not been in hot pursuit. But he will miss the anonymity of walking around town without being recognized - Ballard said it never once happened to him in either Sunbelt stop - explaining that twice yearly visits to Alberta and British Columbia brought the perfect dose of rock stardom and scrutiny.
"My career was plateauing a little bit, and it was time for a spark or a change," Hamhuis said. "It's going to be different for [his wife Sarah]as well, but she knows that and we're going to deal with it the best we can."Report Typo/Error