Helmut Balderis was an extraordinary stickhandler and a unique forward. He belonged neither to the Soviet school of hockey nor to his native Latvian, but rather was the result of a singular upbringing.
In Latvia, then a part of the USSR, ice hockey was the number one sport. Riga's Dynamo, under Viktor Tikhonov, rocketed into the big league and competed with Moscow teams as an equal. In 1977 Balderis and Tikhonov were transferred to CSKA "in the interests of the national team." The Latvian players were insulted and annoyed by the heavy-handed treatment, but Balderis was clever. He performed the role he was forced into in a way that Latvians found amusing. He would fool around on the ice with such finesse that even the tough taskmaster Tikhonov couldn't reprimand him.
The fun-loving Balderis, a natural and self-assured player, was allowed to play for three years with CSKA, then was let go. "Of course the individual games mattered. But when I was on the ice challenging the goalie face to face, nothing mattered except my desire to fake him out. Later I would watch the tape and relive the moment, considering all the nuances of the game."
Among his predecessors, he thought highly of Anatoli Firsov, but he wasn't particularly impressed by fame. "Before I started playing for CSKA, I noticed that Tretiak missed the puck more often when it was shot from a good distance, so instead of trying to fake him out, I shot from a long or middle distance."
Balderis was the only player of his generation to play in the NHL, with the Minnesota North Stars. Trained by the most demanding and toughest of coaches?Tikhonov and Vladimir Yurzinov?he managed to stay on their good side and yet remain true to himself. For Balderis, that was always the greatest satisfaction. He was inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation's Hall of Fame in 1998.