How’s this for a life-changing summer week: Marry your hometown bride, who had stuck with you through four years at Harvard and two more in the travel-intensive American Hockey League, then get a phone call that says, ‘You’ve just been traded across the country.’
“That’s pro hockey,” Chris Bala ‘01 said. “It’s a business.”
And though Bala’s world was shaken up like a snow-globe with the late-June, three-team trade that plucked him from the friendly confines of his native Northeast and the Ottawa Senators, he’s settling into his new role with the defending AHL (Calder Cup) champion Houston Aeros, the AHL affiliate of his new team, the Minnesota Wild.
In three games this season, the 25-year-old winger has collected one assist. Meanwhile, his new wife, Katie, is at home in Pottstown, Pa., teaching second grade. They’ll see each other once a month during the hockey season.
“A lot of things are new and changing for me right now,” Bala said. “That was my first experience being traded.”
Of course, Bala didn’t worry about call-ups or roster moves during his Harvard career, which ended in 2001 after 99 points and a government A.B. His first pro season, with the Grand Rapids Griffins, was his best. He had 21 goals and 37 points, earning him a six-day stint in the NHL and selection to the AHL All-Star team.
Last year, injuries – including a concussion – cut his season with the Binghamton Senators almost 30 games short. His production dipped to 24 points. And that’s a big reason why Bala is optimistic about the change of scenery.
“Once I got to digest it all, and talk to the people in Minnesota, I started to see that maybe this would be a good fit for me,” Bala said. “It’s giving me a chance at a fresh start, to make first impressions all over again.” By all indications, Bala’s confidence is up, which was the first goal that Minnesota assistant general manager Tommy Thompson had when the Wild acquired him.
“For whatever reason, he wasn’t playing that well last season, so it’s our job to get him back where he can be, and then judge him based on that,” Thompson said.
“He’s a good skater and a good shooter and he can play an up-tempo game, and in Minnesota we like to see that.”
Another benefit of the trade was precisely that – a change in the NHL roster that he’s trying to crack. Ottawa is arguably the NHL’s most talented team, and though the Wild is known for its quick, young forwards, Bala seems to have a better chance at breaking in with Minnesota.
“I think I fit into Minnesota’s plan, maybe a little better than Ottawa’s,” Bala said. “But it’s never easy to break into the NHL. You have to be playing well, and a spot has to be open.
“I just have to establish myself as a player,” he continued, “and see where I fit in the grand scheme of things.
“So far, so good.”