"Kristians, Would you be interested in doing an interview with us?" And with that, my relationship with Kristians Pelss was born in October, 2010. His answer "my english not soo good ..", made me chuckle, but with the help of Didzis Rudmanis, I presented a list of translated questions that led to this disjointed interview.
As Pelss became more of a household name in Edmonton, the rest of the media caught on to his story, his success with the Oil Kings made him a known quantity among Oilers' fans and the novelty of the longshot Latvian wore off. But I kept up my chats with Pelss and got to know him a bit (as much as one can through Facebook and email) and found the excitement he exuded in his interviews was real. He was happy to be in Edmonton, happy to be in Stockton, happy to be in Oklahoma City, and happy to be at home. At each stop, his teammates publicly spoke of his enthusiasm and elan. He was a happy guy who loved the game, his teammates and everything that went along with the journey.
It's the perfect attitude for a longshot, and few players were bigger longshots than Pelss. He was drafted 181st overall, in the 7th round in 2010, and he was a surprise 7th round pick, even for Latvian writers. He came to North America as a bundle of raw talent, but with very few expectations and surpassed most of them, earning a contract with the Oilers and the beginning of a professional career in Stockton and Oklahoma City. That alone was more than most 7th-round picks accomplish. He was driven in his quest to make the NHL, and Oilers' fans appreciated him for it, naming him their favorite longshot.
I was unlucky in that I only got to watch Pelss play in the World Juniors and twice on the grainy, start-and-stop Neulion webcast of an Oil Kings game on WHL Live. He was easy to root for. What I saw of Pelss on the ice reminded me of his personality off of the ice. He was excited, hungry, fast, and attacked on the forecheck like it was his last shift. One of my favorite photos of Pelss is his arrival into the celebration after the Oil Kings' third goal against Portland in game 7 of the WHL Championship in 2012. The play personifies Pelss: he swoops in on the forecheck to snag a turnover, turns with his head up and feeds Michael St. Croix for the goal in front.
When we heard the first rumors of his passing, we made an editorial decision not to publish anything on the rumors and we remain happy with our choice. Better to make sure we've got it right than be the first to Twitter and look foolish when the rumors are wrong (and boy were they). But when it was confirmed, I decided to write about it, but only after first finding out what actually happened that night, so I reached out to a couple of Kirstians' friends. None of them were interested in saying anything official, of course, but they all said the same thing "it wasn't suicide, it was an accident," nothing specific about that night. So I held off.
When the news broke that it wasn't suicide, and in fact, it was a bit of drunken revelry gone wrong, his friends' answers made sense. It wasn't so much an accident, as a terribly bad outcome to a sequence of decisions that so many young men make each summer. Summer, beers and recreational swimming go together like chili, mustard and hot dogs. But for Pelss, one too many beers, or a current that was just a bit too strong, or a bridge that was a bit too high contributed to his end. And who could predict an end like that? What are we supposed to write in response to the news?
So what do we do in the wake of a death like this? There's no outrage against the lack of mental health care for pro athletes, there's nothing to rail against like prescription drug abuse in the NHL. To put it bluntly, this was just another invincible young man who made a bad decision, like all invincible young men are predestined to make. But this young man was our young man, and this bad decision hit home for all of us. All we can do is remember. We remember his impact on the Oil Kings, we remember his work at the World Juniors, we remember him becoming a regular in Oklahoma City, we remember how hard he skated each night and how much he drove himself to make the next level, we remember his excitement for...everything, and we remember his love of what he did. And then it hit me.
We can't do much but remember, but one way The Copper & Blue can help to keep Kristians Pelss' memory alive is to rename our semi-annual Top 25 Under 25 Longshot in honor of Kristians. So moving forward, it will be the Top 25 Under 25 Kristians Pelss Longshot award. It's not much, but it will be a reminder of the young man we miss so much.