LONDON, Ont. — Mitchell Moroz is one of the toughest, most feared players in the Western Hockey League. On Sunday evening, standing on the ice after his Edmonton Oil Kings won the Memorial Cup, he wept openly while hugging his mom, Leigh-Ann.
“I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve,” said the forward collecting himself before meeting the media. “That’s my personality and that’s the way I play, I guess.
“These moments are really special.”
It’s been an emotional ride.
In June, the Oil Kings mourned the loss of former teammate Kristians Pelss, who drowned accidentally. He had been close to a number of players on the roster – particularly Moroz. During the tournament it was not uncommon to hear the players talk about the 20-year-old forward saying a small prayer to Pelss when the team needed it most.
After the 6-3 victory over the Guelph Storm, Pelss’ jersey was carried out onto the ice and prominently displayed in the team photo. It was a gesture – much like their season- to honour their fallen teammate’s memory.
It was also fitting that Moroz scored the game-winning goal.
“I don’t really know how to say it right now,” said Moroz after the game. “I know when I look back one day I’ll be able to appreciate it more. It’s so surreal right now. To be able to honour him in this way is so special. It was 25 guys that had one goal in mind. It was a long season, but we had a guardian angel and he helped us get here.”
Pelss had been a member of the 2012 champion Oil Kings that played at the Memorial Cup in Shawinigan, Que. That team, which included many of the veterans on the ice on Sunday, was eliminated in the semifinal by the host team.
“We know he’s watching us,” said Curtis Lazar, a first-round pick of the Ottawa Senators, who played with Pelss. “This goes out to him.”
Entering the game, the smart money was on the OHL champion Storm who had been undefeated in the round-robin portion of the tournament. They had handily beaten Edmonton 5-2 in their earlier meeting. The Oil Kings were playing on one day of rest after surviving a marathon triple overtime victory over the QMJHL champion Val-d’Or Foreurs in the semifinal that lasted past their curfew at just over 102 minutes.
Guelph’s Robby Fabbri scored one minute into the game which had Edmonton behind the eight-ball.
“We call ourselves the adversity Oil Kings,” said overage defenceman Cody Corbett, who scored a goal in the win. “We put ourselves in spots that most teams can’t get out of. I mean we were down right away 1-0 just like that and there are probably some teams that would pack it up and call it a game, but we’re a team that doesn’t stop. There’s so much heart on this team. There are so many great guys, we’re just one big family.”
A big family that includes quirky Latvian forward Edgars Kulda. The undrafted 19-year-old emerged as Edmonton’s unlikely hero and the tournament’s most valuable player with four goals and three assists. He was so surprised to win the Stafford Smythe Memorial Trophy, he wasn’t sure whether he was allowed to take it off the presentation table.
“I’ve never won anything like that,” said the likeable, high-energy Latvian. “What should I do? Shake hands. Picture. What now? Can I take this home to Latvia? I don’t know.”
Kulda is the younger brother of former NHLer Arturs Kulda. He was asked whether or not an award of this stature might result in some bragging rights at home in Riga. The younger Kulda, didn’t think so.
“He will still say something like, ‘At your age I won the Calder Cup in the AHL!’’ said Kulda, laughing. Even before the Memorial Cup began, the Oil Kings fought tooth-and-nail just to make it to the tournament. In the Western Hockey League final against the defending champion Portland Winterhawks, they found themselves trailing the series down 2-0. The games weren’t even close and the Oil Kings were written-off until the eventually forced a Game 7 back in Portland. They became the first team in WHL history to win a Game 7 on the road.
“We went up against a great team like Portland and beat them in Game 7,” said Edmonton head coach Derek Laxdal. “That battle tested series just set us up for the Memorial Cup and our guys are proud to represent the (WHL) and represent Edmonton and – I’m getting choked up – I know our kids are excited to get back home and celebrate with the fans.”
Henrik Samuelsson scored twice along with Kulda, Corbett, Moroz and rookie Tyler Robertson. Robertson, 17, had a total of two points – one goal and one assist – in 26 WHL games this season. An perfect illustration of the Oil Kings season, according to Lazar.
“A lot of people thought we were out of it at many points this season,” said Lazar. “Every night there’s a different hero. Tonight is a prime example, Tyler Robertson, you could probably count his entire shifts for the tournament on one hand, but he scores and contributes when we needed him to.
“That sums up our team. We’ve always found a way.”