Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Captain Latvia Looking to Build on WJC

The big stage of the World Junior Championship meant different things for different players. For some, like Canada's Quinton Howden, it meant a chance at golden redemption. American netminder Jack Campbell was trying to finish his WJC eligibility the same way it began - with a gold medal. Yevgeni Kuznetsov and the Russians were trying to make it two in a row while Oscar Klefbom and Sweden were hoping to finally live up to expectations.

Then there was Denmark and Latvia, the two nations who played their way up to the big pool who were hoping to avoid relegation and embarrassment along the way. Leading the way for Latvia was an Edmonton Oil King who has come away from the experience with a new found attitude and level of confidence.

Not much was expected of Latvia; much of the focus for those watching the Eastern Europeans was on 2012 draft eligible Zemgus Girgensons. Latvian fans have become renowned for their passion and festive behavior at hockey games and so it was no surprise that the underdog team was embraced by the Canadian crowd in Calgary.

One of the key members of the team was Kristians Pelss, a 7th round pick by the Edmonton Oilers in 2010 who is currently in his second WHL season with the Edmonton Oil Kings. The speedster is one of the fastest skaters in the league and has a terrific amount of skill too which makes him a dangerous junior player. Pelss is 5th in team scoring with 16 goals and 30 points but has a remarkable +22 rating.

Last weekend I was able to speak with Pelss in order to reflect on the WJC experience, what it meant to him and how it might make him a better player.

"It was very exciting to be there and to play in it," Pelss said about being involved in the 2012 WJC, "Every game was special and every game you learned something knew. I enjoyed it."

Latvia began the tournament off very well. Pitted against a perennial powerhouse like Sweden in their opening contest could have be a crushing defeat but not only did Latvia not get embarrassed, they kept up to the Swedes for half of the game. It was 4-3 Sweden midway through the second period and the fact that Latvia was still very much alive in the game not only surprised their opposition but it won over the Canadian fans.

"It was the first game and we started good," Pelss said of the game Latvia eventually lost 9-4. "Maybe the Swedes didn't think we'd start like that. We had a good start but..."

Latvia only won a single game in the tournament but it was the one that mattered the most. With just one nation destined to be relegated to Division 1-Group A for 2013, the meeting with Denmark on January 4th was crucial.

The Danes opened the scoring but it was Pelss who tied the game in the second period on what he described as a fortunate one. The power play marker was a long distance slap shot that beat the netminder cleanly. Latvia would eventually go on to win 2-1 in overtime so the goal by Pelss was obviously a huge one.

"It was a good game and that was a good goal, maybe a bit lucky too," Pelss said with too much modestly, "It was fun, a good experience for everybody to play at this level. That game was our biggest goal of the tournament so we were glad to win that."

It means that Latvia will return to play in the 2013 event being held next year in Ufa, Russia but unfortunately for Pelss, he'll be too old to take part. I asked him what he'll take away from the experience of representing his country this year and also last year at the Div 1 WJC.

"I will remember that during this tournament I played against the best guys in the world that are my age," he said, "A lot of them will play in the NHL and maybe one day we will look at them as big stars."

There were four members of the team that are currently playing in North America like Pelss is. Defenceman Nikita Kolesnikovs plays for the Blainville-Boisbriand Armada in the QMJHL, Teodors Blugers is skating at Shattuck-St.Mary's and then there is probable 1st round pick this June, Zemgus Girgensons who will become the new face of hockey for Latvia. I asked Pelss about his WJC teammate.

"He's really good, he's a hard worker and a good skill guy too," Pelss praised, "He'll get drafted for sure... hopefully in the 1st round."

Girgensons has repeatedly stated that he will join the Catamounts at the University of Vermont but Pelss did say that during their time in Calgary, the two did talk about the WHL; Girgensons CHL rights are held by the Kelowna Rockets.

In what was a terrific honor for him, Pelss was chosen by his teammates to be the captain of the Latvian squad. It was a role that was new to him but one he said he will cherish for a long time.

"It was a new experience; I had never been a captain before, maybe in a tournament as a little kid but not [since growing up]," he told me, "It was a good experience and I got to learn something new being the team leader. I'm happy that they picked me for that, it's good to be captain but I felt good that they trusted me and maybe respected me too."

I asked the lighting fast winger where playing in the WJC for Latvia ranks among his hockey accomplishments and goals.

"Being drafted... playing in the WJC and then to play in the NHL," he smiled, "Those are my goals."

With a new level of confidence, Pelss has returned to life in the WHL and has recorded 5 points in the 5 games since the tournament ended. Now focused on playing for the Oil Kings, first in the WHL's Eastern Conference, Pelss is a key member of another team. This one not looking for international glory but chasing playoff success for the first time. To accomplish that post season goal, Edmonton will need all types of leadership from offensive production and character to perseverance and dedication.

They can get all of that from Captain Latvia.

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