By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
They got some financial help from Harvard. For the rest, Wayne says, "You just mortgage yourself for the next 500 years."
Ronn Tomassoni was Harvard's head coach and recruited Bala. "The first time I saw him I thought he was a big-time player just from his skating ability. He's got a great stride."
Bala had an incredible freshman year. He teamed on a line with Steve Moore, led the Harvard team in goals and scored that winning overtime goal against Boston College in the Beanpot Tournament. Later in the year, against the University of Vermont, Bala tied a school record with four goals in the first period.
"We had a lot of fun at school," says Moore, who played with the NHL's Colorado Avalanche until he recently returned to the minors. "He's a very exciting player with explosive speed and great puck handling. He's very dangerous one-on-one."
The magic of what Bala calls "a whirlwind year" continued when both he and Moore were drafted at the end of their freshman season.
Bala went with his father to Buffalo for the draft. "All these pros were there, all the teams had tables; it was like Christmas morning when you're seven years old," Bala's father says. "We heard his name called but didn't really react, then it hits you -- 'Hey, that was my kid's name.' Talk about chills."
"It felt like I met 100 people in 20 minutes after they said my name; it was just one thing after another," Chris says. "After a while I just felt like leaving just to get a little quiet. But it was great."
Despite being drafted, Bala stayed in school for what turned out to be his toughest experience yet: A wrist injury hobbled his play. He'd planned to make the NHL quickly, but being unable to go full-tilt and make an impression grated on him.
"That was the most frustrating thing, not being 100 percent," he says. "The numbers weren't there for me, and statistics are such a big thing in this game. So there was doubt and worry and whatnot. It was a bad, bad year."
The goal-scoring numbers never really came back for Bala, but he knew he'd never been perceived as a dominant offensive force. So after getting his Harvard degree in government studies, Bala entered the hockey minor leagues ready to hone the penalty-killing and setup skills that might give him a chance at sticking in the NHL.
His brief taste of the big time gives him, he thinks, insight and inspiration now.
"That was an unbelievable experience," he says of the NHL. "The difference up there is not so much in speed, but it's a very mental game up there. They think the game better, they make a better play in a shorter amount of time They also take it a lot more seriously, and that's a pretty good lesson for a young kid to learn."
Bala is overtly personable, ready to chat with fans and good-naturedly take the ribbing when the guy nicknamed "Harvard" is assigned to do the math of splitting the dinner check on the road.
Bala got married over the summer (at the Hill School's chapel) and was planning to play on Ottawa's Binghamton farm team, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from where his new wife got a job teaching second grade. Within days he was traded to the Wild and assigned to Houston; his wife remains in Pennsylvania.
"It's tough, but we don't have any children yet, so we thought if we have to be apart, now's the time to do it," he says. He fills up his off-time playing golf.
For a guy who has much of his life planned out, the uncertainty and lack of control over his destiny can grind on him.
If the NHL players go on strike after this season -- most observers think they will, and it will be a long one -- or if he gets sent down instead of up, Bala says he "would have some serious thinking to do."
At 25, the window might be closing soon. But, he says, "If hockey ended tomorrow for me I'd be okay with it. It's not all that I'm about."
Ultimately, he'd like to teach and coach hockey at the Hill School. He already runs a summer camp there for local kids. "So many people have helped me along the way, I'm just trying to do the same," he says.
Bala's former headmaster lauds him for interests that range beyond the game.
"He wanted to attend a prep school and did; he wanted to graduate from an elite college and did," Daugherty says. "And he wanted to give professional hockey a try and is doing that."
Giving pro hockey a try can be especially tough in a town that hasn't really taken to the sport. The fans who show up are fervent -- there's not only a vast array of Aeros jerseys in the crowd, many of them are plastered with team autographs -- but there just aren't very many of them.
Lynn, the Minnesota Wild's assistant GM, says he still thinks Houston is a viable hockey market. In July, the Wild bought 80 percent of the Aeros from former owner Chuck Watson.