It’s not hard to cheer for Keith Ballard, whose humility and sense of humour carried him after his game left.

The 30-year-old defenceman is never going to be the guy the Vancouver Canucks promised when general manager Mike Gillis sacrificed offensive prospect Michael Grabner and a first-round draft pick to acquire Ballard from the Florida Panthers in 2010.

On a good team, he is not a top-four blue-liner who will play 22-24 minutes a night. His strong skating cannot drive the attack and his competitiveness doesn’t change anyone’s game plan. What Keith Ballard turned out to be, besides a great teammate, is a steady National Hockey League defenceman.

His greatest fault is that the Panthers overpaid when they signed him to a six-year, $25.2-million US contract in 2009, and Gillis overpaid to get him a year later. And those two transactions created an expectation that was impossible for Ballard to fulfil.

After trying to be a player he is not, he is finally the player he needs to be for the Canucks.

“Part of the problem is I just was never really sure what I was supposed to do,” Ballard said Wednesday.

“I spent so much time last year on the mental side of things, working with a sports psychologist, because until I came here I never had any adversity in hockey. Going back to five years old, I just went out and played and didn’t worry about anything.

“I’ve put in so much work on the mental aspect of it that I feel like such a different person, on and off the ice. Coming into this year, I just felt like myself again.”

Ballard, who is from Baudette, Minn., should feel at home Thursday night. He’ll be playing against the Minnesota Wild in front of family and friends, albeit with a heart aching at the loss this week of his grandfather.

Ballard is one of the most “human” players on the Canucks.

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