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Class Act

03/13/2002 1:38 PM - Harvard grad Chris Bala is earning high marks for his rookie season with the Griffins.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

“Boys, you must strive to find your own voice because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.”

— Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society English was not his favorite subject, so reading poetry was probably never among Chris Bala’s favorite things to do. And yet his personal experience might not have been too far from the New England prep school experience characterized in Peter Weir’s 1989 film starring Robin Williams.

Getting good grades came easy almost from the beginning for young Chris, who was born in Alexandria, Virginia, a place that takes its name from the city that was the center of learning in ancient Greece.

“I wasn’t a kid who came right home and did my homework, but I was a good student without my parents being over my shoulder all the time. I didn’t need them to push me,” Bala recalls.

Motivation has never been a problem for Bala, for whom hockey was poetry on ice. Inspired and mentored by an uncle who played hockey at Division III Wagner College on Long Island, he started skating at the age of three.

“As a kid, I was always playing hockey, whether it was on the ice or in the driveway,” Bala says. “My uncle was a goalie and he’d stand in net and I would shoot on goal for hours.”

His family eventually settled in eastern Pennsylvania -- a blue collar town called Phoenixville, to be precise -- and by his teens, he was excelling at the rink as well as school.

“My parents always supported me and did whatever it took to get me where I needed to be, whether it was 6 o’clock in the morning for mites practice or up to Quebec for a weekend when I was a teenager,” recalls Bala, who has a younger brother, Jeff, a college freshman who enjoys hockey refereeing.

Wayne Bala, a telecommunications account manager, and his wife, Carole, a dental hygienist, were textbook parents. “Whatever it took to help us be successful, they would do it.

They gave me every opportunity -- it was my responsibility to make the most of it.” Cut from the district level of the USA Hockey program at age 16, Bala made the national team a year later. It wasn’t long before he was attracting the attention of Ivy League schools and the decision was made to attend a prep school in Pennsylvania.

Bala thrived in the all-boys atmosphere at The Hill School where a strict balance between education and sports was enforced. “I found that I excelled in that environment,” he recalls. “I got better grades, even though it was more challenging.”

His hockey coach at The Hill School was John Micheletto, now an assistant coach at Notre Dame. “He took me under his wing and taught me the ‘Xs’ and ‘Os’ and the finer points of the game,” Bala says. “He was also dean of students, so he helped me adapt and feel more comfortable in the classroom.”

While still in prep school, Bala took advantage of an early admissions program at Harvard and had an acceptance letter in hand early into his senior year. “I took a month to make my decision and committed in January,” he says.

Walking into the hallowed halls of Harvard was a daunting experience. “Because of the mystique, the adjustment can be difficult,” says Bala,who roomed with five other freshman. “There were days when I wondered if I had made a mistake.”

Hockey helped freshman Bala make the adjustment. His 16 goals made him the first freshman to lead Harvard in more than a decade. After the season, he was drafted by Ottawa with the Senators’ third pick in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft.

Things didn’t go so well during his sophomore year. He suffered a broken wrist in a center-ice collision and played with a cast for the remainder of the season. “It was really frustrating,” he says. “I couldn’t shoot or stickhandle the way I wanted and my point total dropped by half.”

Bala, who had a pin placed in his wrist following the season, found himself second-guessing his decision to play with the cast. “It was a difficult year, but ultimately one that I learned from,” he says.

He was greeted by a new coach, Mark Mazzoleni, for his junior season. “It was like a new start for me in more ways than one,” Bala says. “I had to prove myself not only to them, but myself as well.”

Bala took to Mazzoleni’s blue-collar approach of emphasizing hard work and effort. “He taught me to work even harder,” Bala says.

Before his senior season at Harvard, Bala attended his first camp in Ottawa before his senior season. “There was no pressure, no expectations, so I could just perform and take stock of how I measured up,” Bala recalls.

His experience in Ottawa renewed his confidence and led to a strong senior season that saw him finally match his freshman point totals. He was ready when he came into the Senators camp last fall. “I didn’t go into camp expecting to make the team, so I was happy with how I played,” he says.

He admits that his rookie season has exceeded even his own expectations, after taking about a month to adjust to the professional style of play. “Eventually I realized that if I just play my game, good things will start to happen.”

Those “good things” have included Bala’s first professional hat trick, along with a record-setting five-assist effort. He was leading the Griffins in goal scoring when a concussion sidelined him at the beginning of March.

“I don’t want to look back on the season and wonder what might have hap pened if I worked harder or had been more prepared,” Bala says. “I wanted to seize the opportunity and, as I’ve been given more ice time, I’ve tried to make the most of it.”

“Seize the day,” Robin Williams admonished his students in Dead Poets Society. If Chris Bala had been in that classroom, he definitely would have been paying attention.

While Bala hopes to eventually earn admittance to the National Hockey League, he is not going to get caught up in worrying about decisions that are beyond his control.

“The most I can do here is work hard, continue to improve and play well,” Bala says. “Right now I want to help this team, and hopefully that translates into success for me somewhere down the road.”

Bala feels fortunate to be learning from veteran leaders like Travis Richards and John Gruden. “They set such a good example,” he says. “You see how hard they work and it’s pretty easy to see what it takes.”

Bala does some teaching of his own during the summer. For the past two years, he has run his own hockey camp back in his hometown. “It’s something I really enjoy and something I always want to do,” he says.

Someday, hopefully years from now when his playing days are over, the 23-year-old Bala would like to make a career out of coaching and teaching. “The Hill School left a very deep impression on me,” says Bala, whose fiancee, Katie, is already a school teacher.

“To be able to give back and teach can be really fulfilling. A lot of Harvard kids end up in investment banking or on Wall Street, but I don’t th ink I could do that very long without going crazy. Teaching is something I can see myself doing.”

But until that day comes, you can be sure that Bala will continue to be the best student he can be.

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