Harvard and the Boogeyman

Will it be the Aeros' brawler or brainiac who gets to the NHL?

Chris Bala has already experienced the magic moment that still eludes Boogaard: He's actually gotten on the ice in an NHL game.

It was just another day in the locker room of the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins in 2002 when Bala's coach broke the news: An Ottawa Senators player had been injured and Bala was getting an emergency call-up.

Boogaard gets it on with one of the Norfolk Generals.
Photographs by Daniel Kramer
Boogaard gets it on with one of the Norfolk Generals.
Boogaard shows his stuff.
Daniel Kramer
Boogaard shows his stuff.

"It was just unbelievable," Bala says, but in truth he acted with the nonchalance that seems wired into him. "Then I got there; the next day I went to the pregame skate, just tried to make it a regular day, not get too nervous."

His parents, Wayne and Carol, were at home near Philadelphia, and adjusted their itinerary to make that Senators game against the New York Islanders. "He's not one to talk about himself too much," Wayne Bala says of his son. "But I know we were all as excited as you could be that night."

Bala didn't make any noticeable contribution in that first game. "But that didn't matter to me," he says. "Just to be on that stage was enough." Bala soon demonstrated another of his lifelong knacks -- making the most of unexpected opportunities -- when he got an assist a week later in a 4-3 win that clinched a playoff berth for Ottawa.

After six games he was sent back down, but he had, for the moment, made it. "I basically got my feet wet," he says. "But it was great."

Sometimes it's as if he's glided from one such highlight to another, from making a junior team of 17-year-olds that traveled to Japan, to scoring the goal as a freshman that ended a long losing streak for Harvard in Boston's revered Beanpot Tournament, to being named to the AHL all-star team.

Where Boogaard has struggled to adapt to slights real and perceived, Bala has seemingly not encountered any -- or at least any that could dent his rock-solid sense of who he is.

It would be easy to paint him as a rich, anointed golden boy, with the pricey prep school and Ivy League degree. But the truth is that Bala doesn't come from money; it's hockey that has given him his elite credentials.

Wayne Bala was an AT&T salesman who now owns a bar and grill near Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, where son Chris grew up.

Chris had been skating since he was three, inspired by an uncle playing college hockey. But the Philadelphia area is not the hockey hotbed that New England, Minnesota and Michigan are, so that meant long drives and club teams that sometimes weren't all that good.

"We didn't have five rinks within 20 minutes of us like some places, so we'd be driving to New Jersey or Boston or Michigan or Canada," Chris says. "My parents didn't think anything about throwing eight kids in the back of the van and taking off."

His ability to make the most of any chance became apparent early, after he'd been practicing regularly at the rink of the Hill School in nearby Pottstown. The boys-only boarding school of 450 students called him his junior year at Phoenixville, asking him to transfer.

Founded in 1851, the Hill School features alumni who include former secretary of state James Baker, oilman Lamar Hunt and movie director Oliver Stone, who once described the rigorous academic curriculum as "a Japanese samurai training course."

Plenty of big-money East Coast elites attend Hill; those who aren't quickly adapt, and strong bonds are established. Never before in school history had an outsider transferred in and been elected senior class president (or, as it's known at Hill, President of the Sixth Form), but Bala did just that.

"Chris is one of the most disciplined and well-focused and purposeful people I've ever known," says David Daugherty, the Hill School headmaster. "He's fun and has a good sense of humor; he's sociable, but he has always known what he's wanted and gone after it with great focus…I don't say this casually, but he is really one of the most outstanding students we've had."

"It pushed me and raised my performance on and off the ice," Bala says. "I just felt comfortable there."

He's always been remarkably self-possessed; he speaks in full paragraphs, sometimes very, very earnestly.

"It's very much been me making my own choices since I was a little kid," he says. "I get a lot of advice from people and I listen to it, but in the end I make my own choice."

One of which still causes his father to wince. Chris had a four-year scholarship offer from Notre Dame and an acceptance letter from Harvard, which offers no athletic scholarships. Tuition at the time was about $40,000 a year.

"He comes in and says he's made a decision on which college he wants to go to," Wayne says. "I'm standing there in the kitchen with my fingers crossed behind me going, 'Please, Notre Dame. Please, Notre Dame.' He says 'Harvard' and my knees buckle."

He had told Chris not to let finances affect his choice. "I said, 'Your mother and I will find a way…Don't make a decision based on that, because if you do one day you'll be sitting in your room unhappy and blaming me and your mom.' "

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