Helmut Balderis set an NHL record 27 years ago. On November 2, 1989, the 37-year old right wing scored a goal for the Minnesota North Stars in a 4-3 loss to the Blackhawks at Chicago Stadium. By doing so, he became the oldest player in NHL history to score his first goal in the NHL.
However, that was actually Balderis’ second NHL record. Back in June of 1989, he was drafted in the 12th round (238 overall) by the North Stars. In that draft, Mats Sundin made history as the first European to be selected first overall in an NHL draft. Balderis, then 36, quietly also made history as the oldest person to be drafted by an NHL team.
Balderis was a lot like the Soviet Union’s version of Guy Lafleur. Both had great careers in their respective leagues. Both retired after the 1984-85 season due to dissatisfaction with their respective careers. And both made comebacks at age 37.
Unlike Lafleur, who had moderate success in his three-year comeback, Balderis’ career in the NHL was unremarkable. He was in and out of the lineup with the North Stars, scoring three goals and six assists in 26 games. Other Soviet players who made NHL debuts in 1989, such as Sergei Makarov and Igor Larionov, had much more substantial NHL careers.
But before — and even after — his brief stint in the NHL, Balderis had a stellar career. The Latvian-born winger played pro hockey in the Soviet Union from 1973 to 1985. His first four seasons were spent with his hometown Dynamo Riga team. Balderis had a breakout year in 1976-77: he was the Soviet League’s top scorer, was named to the First All-Star team, was named the Soviet League player of the year and was named the best forward at the World Championships. After that, he and head coach Viktor Tikhonov — the renowned Soviet hockey coach — were transferred to the Central Red Army team, where Balderis played for three seasons.
In 1980, Balderis was a part of the Soviet Olympic Team that lost the “Miracle on Ice” game to the United States. He skated over to the American bench to offer congratulations to U.S. coach Herb Brooks.
Balderis decided to return to Latvia after the 1979-80 season, where he played another five years. That angered Tikhonov, who was the coach of both the Central Red Army and the Soviet National Team. Tikhonov purposely left Balderis off of the National Team roster for any international tournaments. Fed up, Balderis retired in 1985 and coached hockey in Japan until the North Stars took a chance on him in the 1989 NHL Draft.
After one season with the North Stars, Balderis went back to Latvia and played pro hockey from 1991 to 1996 — just shy of his 44th birthday. He was the top scorer of the Latvian league in 1993 and inducted into the International Hockey Hall of Fame in 1998. Balderis’ two NHL records may be but a footnote in league history, but they are also a footnote in his decorated career. ■