Kristians Pelss: In Memoriam

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt, “Citizenship in a Republic – The Man in the Arena” (1910)

Kristians Pelss was a winner.

Everywhere he went, everything he did, he won.  This isn’t about championships, pennants, scoring titles or MVP awards.  This is about a young man, in pursuit of his dream, and never straying from that path.  It almost seemed like destiny for Kristians Pelss to end up in the NHL.

Almost.

Pelss, born in 1992 in Preiļi – a town of less than 9000 people and about 110 miles from Riga, the capital of Latvia – was part of the new wave of Latvian hockey players which include Oskars Bartulis, Arturs Kulda, Kaspars Daugavins, Teodors Blugers and Zemgus Girgensons.  Beginning his career with DHK Latgale of the LHL in 2008, he then moved on to HK Riga – the minor league team of Dinamo Riga – the following year.  It was at this time that he also started to represent his country on the international stage, playing for Latvia at the U18 level in 2009 and 2010.

Look at his statistics and you won’t see anything that stands out.  Not a dominating offensive force, though he undoubtedly did possess some decent skills, it is all the more impressive that he found himself being viewed by some rather important folks in the hockey world.

At the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, the Edmonton Oilers had the eyes of the hockey world upon them.  Having to make a choice between two electric, elite talents in Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, and then also possessing three second round picks, this was where the stories lay for the majority of media outlets.

By the time the 7th round of the draft rolls around, a majority of fans have gone home, the media are packing up their computers and notepads, and many members of each team’s entourage are not even present.  Something rather curious happened at this point, however, as the Edmonton Oilers stepped forward with what was at that point their last pick in the draft (though they swung a deal for another 7th round pick from Phoenix) and announced a name that had everybody, almost without exception, Googling frantically to try and dig up some information.  Even the guys who run the giant draft board on stage didn’t have a nameplate for the poor guy.

From that point on, even though the only image that could be found of the man known first as Kristians “Pless” before someone dug deeper for the correct spelling was the photo to the left, no-one forgot his name.  I would wager that a good deal of Edmonton Oiler fans, at least those who follow prospects, had a new favourite fellow waiting in the wings.

Pelss found himself not long after drafted by the Edmonton Oil Kings of the WHL, and more information gradually became available.  He was noticed by Oilers Head Scout Stu MacGregor and Oil Kings GM Bob Green at the World U18s, and were immediately entranced by his skating speed and energy, not to mention his bullet of a shot.  Oiler Scout Frank Musil then worked to see if Pelss would come over to play in North America for the Oil Kings, a notable move seeing as the Oil Kings are a part of the Oilers organisation, hence giving the major league team an advantage in development.  MacGregor later revealed that the team themselves had to add Pelss to the Central Scouting draft list, and that doing it that way meant he only appeared on their list.

The 18 year old attended his first prospect camp and rookie camp that off-season, surprising many with his high-energy, his speed, his shot and his defensive awareness.  It was still a long shot for the kid out of a tiny town in a corner of Eastern Europe that didn’t produce many NHLers, but there was something there, a quiet determination behind that inimitable smile that said, “this guy wants it”.

That season saw his first taste of North American hockey, and he took to it well.  Whilst his numbers were pedestrian by most people’s standards, anyone who saw him could tell that there was something about his game that screamed “pro hockey player”.  He developed his defensive game well whilst with the Oil Kings, and also proved to be something of an agitator on the ice.

Off the ice, however, he fit right in with the high flying Edmonton squad.  Never coming across as arrogant or brash, but rather polite, humble and coachable, he improved immeasurably in his second season at both ends of the ice, and was an integral part of the Oil Kings team that bulled their way to the WHL Championship and into the Memorial Cup as he provided versatility to a team stacked in all areas.

He also achieved the ultimate honour of captaining his country at the U20 World Junior Championships, an event that saw him become one of the brightest young stars of Latvian hockey.

Following that wonderful run, Pelss achieved what he’d been trying to do his entire hockey life – earn an NHL contract.  Many fans were dubious that he would amount to NHL player, but again those that saw him maintained an inkling that, whilst he may never be a star, he had all the makings of a Darren Helm-type forward – an excellent penalty killer, responsible defensively and with speed to burn making life difficult for the opposition.  An invaluable part of any team.

It was expected that Kristians would spend much of the 2012/13 season with the Stockton Thunder of the ECHL, enabling him to adjust to the professional game in a less demanding environment.  In fact, he spent more time with the OKC Barons of the AHL than he did with the Thunder, further proving that it was foolish to ever count him out.  Todd Nelson, the Baron’s coach, admitted to being surprised at Pelss’ abilities, praising his defensive skills but also his grit and his NHL potential.

Injuries cut short his season, and unfortunately he found himself on the outside looking in by the time he got healthy, but he had already made an impression on a team loaded with AHL veterans, high draft picks and notable former-college stars.  Hopes were high for 2013/14.

Image courtesy of Patricia Teter, of the Artful Puck blog.

The terrible news that Kristians was missing late last week hit Oiler fans like a hammer to the chest.  He wasn’t one of the more famous players in the organisation, but he was the underdog, the kind of kid who made you raise your eyebrows in surprise at what he could do, and the kind who made you smile when you saw his interviews.  That long wait heading into the weekend was excruciating for fans – it is impossible to imagine what it was like for his team-mates past and present, his friends, and most of all his family.

And then came the news everybody had been praying was not true.

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This is not the only hockey player that Latvia has had to mourn in the last couple of years.  Tragedy struck two years ago when a plane carrying the entire Lokomotiv Yaroslavl KHL team crashed on take-off, cruelly taking the life of everyone on board.  Whilst the hockey world mourned the loss, for Latvia it was 37 year old Karlis Skrastins, one of their most famous players, whose death was felt the most.  Fast forward to 2012, and Kaspars Astasenko was found dead also at the age of 37.

With Pelss, one of the countries up-and-coming young stars, they have lost yet another son.  No country, fanbase, no family should ever have to lose those that they love, whether it’s their time or not.

Sports fandom is a funny thing.  I’ve never met Kristians Pelss, nor have 99% of hockey fans.  A good deal would never have even seen him play, some may never have even heard of him.  And yet, when a tragedy such as this occurs, we band together, mourning a life lost – not a talented hockey player vanished from the system, not a contract number subtracted or a roster spot opened up, but a son, a brother, a friend, an exceptional young person who up to that moment when his life ended had achieved everything he could have hoped for and more.

Represented his country for the first time at age 16.  Winner.

Represented his country for the second time at age 17.  Winner.

Drafted by an NHL organisation at age 18.  Winner.

Represented his country at the U20 level, helping lead them to promotion.  Winner.

Represented his country at the U20 level for the second time, captaining the team.  Winner

Part of a WHL Championship squad at age 19.  Winner.

Earned an NHL contract.  Winner.

Played for a top AHL team.  Winner.

And yet despite so much success, so much achieved in so little time, it still does not seem fair.  It will never be fair for a man with just 20 years to his name to pass away, not someone with so much passion, talent and drive.

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I never knew Kristians Pelss, but I feel I owe him thanks.  Thanks, for entertaining us.  Thanks, for inspiring us. Thanks, for being a Latvia U20 player, an Edmonton Oil King, a Stockton Thunder, an Oklahoma City Baron.

Thanks, Kristians, for being an Edmonton Oiler.  In my eyes, you made it.

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