Helmut Balderis

A fantastic skater and dazzling puck handler, one of the most interesting great players ever to come out of the Soviet Union was a mustachioed showman named Helmut Balderis. He was a fun loving, entertaining player back when Soviet players' were very accurately portrayed by North Americans as "robots."

A proud Latvian, Balderis was one of the few non-Russians on the national team. Not that he necessarily wanted to be there.

There was great political divide between the two societies under communist rule, with the Latvians none too happy with Russia. So when the Soviet hockey authorities transferred Balderis (and a coach named Viktor Tikhonov) from Dynamo Riga, where he quickly became a living legend, to CSKA Moscow "in the interests of the national team," there was no shortage of outrage.

Balderis had no choice in the matter, but he played for the national team in a curious fashion. He would put on amazing displays of individualistic skills and rushes, almost toying with opposition, but would rarely score.

As the great book Kings of the Ice suggests, "it was his way of saying to the authorities, 'You forced me to be here, so you get what you deserve."

"I can get away with it on CSKA. If I don't score, Mikhailov, Petrov or Kharlamov will," Balderis added.

The Balderis experiment with the Red Army team lasted only three years, from 1977 through 1980 before he was returned to Riga, and for all intents and purposes dropped from the national team.

Despite his short tenure in Moscow he earned quite the resume. He was part of three consecutive world championship teams, winning the best forward award in 1977. He won the Olympic silver medal in 1980, and was part of the Soviet team that hammered the NHL all stars at the 1979 Challenge Cup tournament.

After the Russians failed 1980 Olympics Balderis was returned to Riga where he starred until 1985. He saved his best for games against CSKA, of course. Balderis was one rare shooter who seemed to have solved the great Vladislav Tretiak, shooting from further out than most shooters, and with good success.

In 1985 Balderis moved to Japan to coach, but he would return to the ice as a player. Balderis, who didn't start playing hockey until he was 11 because he trained as a figure skater for the seven previous seasons, made his comeback to the ice as a 37 year old rookie in the NHL. The Iron Curtain had just fallen in 1989, and veteran Soviet hockey players were being allowed to leave for NHL jobs for the first time. Balderis joined the Minnesota North Stars, playing in just 26 games and scoring just 3 goals and 9 points, but wowing audiences with his skating skills.

Balderis returned to his beloved Latvia and served in several managerial roles, but also came out of retirement to play in parts of 4 seasons with Latvian teams between 1991 and 1996.


gerry jones said...

A very exciting and highly skilled player to watch while in the NHL.
He was a superb and speedy skater who could excite the whole stadium as soon has he hit the ice. Hockey could only benifit with more showmen with his skills. I loved to watch him from ice level where you could realy enjoy his talent.

Anonymous said...

An amazing player indeed. More individually skilled than Lafleur, Perreault Orr or any other North American of the time. The only sportsman I can equate him to would be basketball's Pete Maravich for the flair, excitement and awesome talent they each. possessed.

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