CORAL SPRINGS — Uvis Balinskis walked through the Florida Panthers locker room on Tuesday to greet a visitor.
When asked how he is doing, he smiles.
“Really good,’’ he says, “I’m in the NHL.’’
Yeah, he is.
The 27-year-old defenseman made the Panthers out of training camp after spending the entirety of his professional career playing in Europe.
Balinskis was first noticed placing for the Latvian national team in the World Championships and last year’s Olympics in Beijing.
The Panthers scouted him while he was playing for the Liberec White Tigers in the Czech Extraliga and began talking about bringing him over to play in the United States.
“It all kind of started last season,’’ Balinskis told FHN after he was told he officially made Florida’s opening roster and will start this season in the NHL.
“In midseason, Florida reached out, came to watch my games and then took me out to dinner. I met with a couple scouts and then I had an online meeting with Paul and Bill. I got signed and now I am here.”
While Balinskis — pronounced Ball-Ins-Kiss — said it is a dream come true to make it to the NHL, it was not something he actively thought of.
Playing in the Czech League the past three seasons can do that.
“For the past couple of years, I was not really thinking about the NHL anymore,” he said. “I was just trying to be the best player in the league where I was playing. Last year was a good season and there was some interest from Florida. I sort of forgot about the NHL, but then it all came back.”
Yes, the Panthers certainly renewed that hope.
When asked to describe the feeling he got when told he made an NHL team, Balinskis struggled a bit.
“Not really,” he said. “Just hearing the news, all you’re thinking about is how you have thought about this all of your life and now it comes to reality. It is really exciting.
Coming into camp, Balinskis and the rest of Florida’s defensemen knew there was an opportunity here what with Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour out for the first two months of the season as they recover from offseason surgery.
But there were only a couple of open spots — and Balinskis ended up winning one of them.
Although not overly big at 6-foot and 200 pounds, he plays both ends of the ice very well and can move the puck.
As for scoring, last year he led the Extraliga with 11 goals in 50 games and was third in the league in assists.
“He built through his camp,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said. “The first five days are difficult to assess a someone because they are that heavy. It is a hard thing to get through. After you come off, you see some players never recover. They just get worn down. Some players get stronger. … He has gotten quicker. I don’t know that surprised is the right word because the pro scouts worked hard to find a player like this, but I am excited about the potential of it.
“We like the way he moves the puck and how he plays the game without any fear. He is trying to make plays, he is trying to get involved, trying to kill plays. There does not seem to be any nervousness.”
As for what is next, well, Balinskis is taking things as they come.
He came to South Florida to start his new life in August, taking up residence in a hotel.
When informed by the Panthers that he would start this season in the NHL, he made his first call to his family and girlfriend.
“They were the first to know about it,’’ he said.
Then he came to work on Tuesday ready to get to work.
He may not make his NHL debut against Minnesota on Thursday night but it is close.
“That is going to be a dream come true,” he said. “I cannot wait for it.”
UPDATE: Balinskis will indeed make his NHL debut on Thursday night; he will play alongside Josh Mhura on Florida’s third pairing.
PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT MINNESOTA WILD
- When: Thursday, 8 p.m.
- Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-0
- This season: Florida @ Minnesota, Thursday; Minnesota @ Florida, Jan. 19
- All-time regular season series: Minnesota leads 18-10-2, 1 tie
- Up Next for the Panthers: Saturday at Winnipeg Jets, 4 p.m. (BSF, 790-AM)