LONDON — Play for Pelssy.
Three short words that hold immeasurable meaning for the Edmonton Oil Kings. Words that are sewn inside each player’s jersey.
It was June of last year when Kristians Pelss – who spent two seasons with the Oil Kings – accidentally drowned in the Daugava River in his home country of Latvia. He was 20 years old.
At the Memorial Cup, Pelss’ memory is still very much alive.
“He’s a spiritual reminder of what it means to wear this jersey and lay it on the line for the boys,” said Oil Kings forward Mitchell Moroz. “We know he’s upstairs watching and he’s such a motivator to have in the back of your mind and in your heart.”
Talking about his friend in the past tense is difficult and there is solemnity and sorrow in Moroz’s voice. After the Oil Kings won the Western Hockey League final it was Moroz that skated around with Pelss’ No. 26 jersey.
In his post-game TV interview he tearfully said he’d been praying to his teammate throughout their tenuous Game 7 against the Portland Winterhawks.
“I had a tough time getting over it, I think we all did,” said Moroz. “It’s something that you don’t ever really get over; you just try and move forward the best you can. It’s something that weighs on you. It’s also a constant reminder of how we want to play this year and the things we want to accomplish.”
That accomplishment would be a Memorial Cup championship. On Sunday, they took a big step towards that goal by picking up their first win of the tournament with a 5-2 win over the tournament host London Knights.
It was one of Pelss’ Latvian countrymen, Edgars Kulda, who scored twice and added an assist to lead Edmonton (1-1) to the crucial victory. The idea of having the team’s lone Latvian player come through with a clutch performance was not lost on Moroz.
“I’m a believer in that kind of stuff,” said Moroz. “I’m proud of Eddie. To have that Latvian connection is pretty cool.”
But the Oil Kings are not defined by their loss, as Kulda, on this night, embodies joie de vivre.
The 19-year-old was animated and high-energy even after the game had ended. Armed with a big smile and exaggerated hand-gestures to emphasize key plays in the game to reporters, it was easy to see why his teammates are so enamored with him.
“You know the Memorial Cup can only be once in your lifetime,” said the native of Riga, Latvia. “So of course you’re all fired up and you want to show something and do something interesting. Sometimes, in my opinion, I’m a little bit way too fancy. In some moments I need to drop it down a little bit and be more calm in some moments.
“Of course it’s very exciting for me.”
After one follow-up question he’s talking a mile-a-minute with his pronounced accent moving his arms around like he was directing an airplane.
“You need to be positive and you need to have energy on the ice,” said the forward. “At the same time I try to stay as focused as I can on the ice. At the same time you need to look like (teammate) Curtis Lazar! He’s always smiling and he does his job so good!”
Back home in hockey-mad Latvia, Edgars does not yet have the same name recognition as Pelss once did. The elder Latvian had been a rising star in the country as an Edmonton Oilers prospect playing in the AHL with Oklahoma City. There were two buses full of minor hockey players who attended Pelss’ funeral.
Most Latvians know Edgars as the younger brother of former NHLer Arturs Kulda, a star on the nation’s world championship team.
“He’s up-and-coming but he’s gaining popularity,” said Viesturs Zarins, a Canadian representative for the Latvia Ice Hockey Federation. “The Kulda boys are known certainly.”
Would he be recognized on the street?
“You know what? Probably.”
In Edmonton, it’s a completely different story where the NHL Oilers are the real kings. According to Oil Kings media relations director, Paul Owen, Kulda has developed a cult following particularly on the team’s Twitter account.
“He’s one of a kind,” said Moroz. “He’s an awesome guy to have. We’re so fortunate to have our Europeans come in and be such great guys – we’re really fortunate in the last three or four years to have great Europeans and he’s no exception. I’m really proud of him.”
Proud of how Edmonton’s Latvian legacy is continuing to perpetuate itself at the Memorial Cup both in life and loss.
After the game when most of the media have cleared out, Kulda proudly shows Zarins the “Play for Pelssy” stitched into his jersey. A few feet away, Moroz manages a small smile thinking about his fallen friend.
“I know he’s up there and he’s going to help us out the rest of the way.”