By Don Stewart
READING, Pa. – For the first time since his rookie season five years ago, Chris Bala actually is enjoying the sport of hockey.
He looks forward to coming to the rink each day, looks forward to helping a team through a long playoff stretch. He’s confident and loose on the ice. He’s not worried about impressing scouts.
“I just want to play the game,” Bala said. “That hasn’t been there for a long time.”
Last summer, the Phoenixville native was thinking seriously about retiring. His wife, Katie, was pregnant with the couple’s first child. He also was coming off an injury-riddled season with the AHL’s Hershey Bears in which he scored a career-low 14 points.
But eventually Bala realized he wasn’t ready to hang ’em up. He signed to play with the Reading Royals, which he hoped would keep him close to home.
Since then, two events have taught Bala a little about life, a little about death. Maybe both were reminders about what’s really important and what we only think is important.
Before the Royals’ preseason camp began, Bala was loaned to the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals. During his five-game stint there, Admirals broadcaster Kyle Schultz died suddenly of a heart attack at age 41.
“It puts things into perspective, obviously,” Bala said. “I didn’t really know him that well, I hadn’t been there that long. But when you’re associated with someone who at a young age suddenly passes away, regardless of what age you are, it puts things into perspective.
“Just to be at that funeral, he’s got a young boy and a wife. It was heart-wrenching. Not that I knew him, not that I was a friend of his, but I was an associate. I saw him the night before. Then the next day we came in and the news got out. It really makes you think.”
The second event came last month, when Katie gave birth to Joshua Christopher.
After a slow start with the Royals, Bala has turned it around, scoring eight goals and eight assists since his son’s arrival. Three of those goals were short-handed, a testament to Bala’s superior speed at the ECHL level.
“I’m enjoying myself,” Bala said. “That’s showing in my play.”
The 27-year-old Harvard grad, a 1998 NHL draft pick who appeared in six games with the Ottawa Senators in his first pro season (2001-02), has been especially valuable to the Royals of late. With the majority of the roster having evaporated up to the AHL in recent weeks, the experienced Bala has helped fill the leadership void.
When captain Reagan Rome was recalled to Manchester Dec. 31, coach Karl Taylor awarded Bala the interim captaincy. Bala said it’s the first time he’s worn the “C” since he played at The Hill School.
“Short-handed, he’s been incredible,” Taylor said. “He’s been unbelievable. He’s a great penalty killer. He’s playing on the power play, he’s playing on the point for us because we’re real short back there.
“He’s playing 30, 40, even 50 minutes if he can handle it. We’re giving him all the ice that he can handle. He’s in fantastic shape. I know he’s having a lot of fun. He’s playing a lot more than he used to and he’s really enjoying it, and I know he’s really happy to be here.”
Bala said the AHL is still in the back of his mind. If he keeps playing as he has been of late, he’ll get a chance to return there soon.
But at this point it would have to be a good opportunity to convince Bala to accept a call-up.
“All I can say right now is I want to keep having fun,” he said. “If an opportunity at the American League presents itself that works out for me, that I think will be a good situation, I’ll look at it. But I’m not actively out there shopping myself to any American League team that will take me. I’m committed here. The team’s made a commitment to me. I take that very seriously. I want to be here for the long haul.
“There are a lot of good things here for me.”