LONDON, Ontario -- Edgars Kulda had just been named the most valuable player of the 2014 Memorial Cup after leading the resilient Edmonton Oil Kings to the franchise's first junior hockey championship with a 6-3 upset victory against the top-ranked Guelph Storm.
After outshining a long list of high NHL draft picks he played alongside and against, Kulda was asked about his standing as NHL Central Scouting's 145th-ranked North American skater for the upcoming draft.
In the typically jovial and playful manner that made him a media darling at the tournament, the 19-year-old Latvian laughed, shrugged his shoulders, and coyly avoided giving a direct answer about anything related to the draft.
"I did what I can already," said Kulda, who had a goal and two assists in the championship game Sunday to go with three goals and one assist in Edmonton's first four games in the tournament. "I'm a champion of the Western Hockey League and a champion of the Memorial Cup. Somehow it all turned out. I think I just got lucky, that's all."
As he smiled and laughed in answering question after question, the only time Kulda's demeanor changed was when he spoke about the inspiration he and the Oil Kings drew this season from the loss of teammate Kristian Pelss, who drowned last June in Riga, Latvia.
As a fellow Latvian, Kulda was especially close with Pelss.
"We were always talking about Pelss, always remembering him. We were playing for him, and I'm sure he is watching us right now and he is very happy," said Kulda, who went undrafted in 2013.
Edmonton forward Henrik Samuelsson fought back tears as he spoke of Pelss after the game.
"We miss him a lot, but, yeah, he's watching over us right now," said Samuelsson, son of New York Rangers assistant coach and longtime NHL player Ulf Samuelsson. "He's been watching over us all year."
Pelss, a 2010 Edmonton Oilers draft pick, wore No. 26. His Oil Kings jersey was with the team at every game on their unusually arduous and unlikely path to the Memorial Cup title. To a man, every Edmonton player will tell you playing to honor Pelss was their ultimate motivation.
The Oil Kings said the memory of Pelss helped them bounce back from a devastating Game 6 loss on home ice against the Portland Winterhawks in the WHL championship series, when they blew a three-goal lead in the third period; they won the title in Game 7 in Portland.
And Pelss was their inspiration in squeaking past the Val-d'Or Foreurs in the Memorial Cup semifinal Friday, a triple overtime thriller that was the longest game in tournament history. The Oil Kings persevered after giving up the game-tying goal in the final minute of regulation.
After such an exhausting game two nights earlier, no one would've blamed the Oil Kings if they were too tired to hang in against a rested powerhouse like Guelph, which cruised through the Ontario Hockey League playoffs and was untested in the Memorial Cup, outscoring its opponents 18-7 in round-robin play.
But Kulda said there was no way he and his teammates were going to think even for a moment about being out of gas.
"We know how to answer the bell," said Kulda, a 6-foot, 178-pound forward. "We know that if things are not going well for us that we can come back. We know how to come back from the hard positions we put ourselves in. That's what championship teams do."
Samuelsson, who was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the first round (No. 27) of the 2012 draft, was named the first star of the championship game, in which he had two goals and three assists.
"I thought I had been playing pretty well throughout this Memorial Cup, but I haven't been scoring as much as I'd like," said Samuelsson, who had two goals and one assist in the tournament heading into the game Sunday.
Looking ahead to an NHL career, Samuelsson feels the Memorial Cup provided him with some valuable experience.
"I think all NHL teams want guys that have won in the past, so I think that'll help me out, knowing how to win and win in tight situations," said Samuelsson, who added that his father has been an "unreal resource" as he prepares for his professional career.
Oil Kings captain Griffin Reinhart, who was selected No. 4 by the New York Islanders in the 2012 draft, is in a similar situation. He's able to get input from his father, Paul, who played 11 NHL seasons, and two brothers, Max and Sam, who appear headed for NHL careers.
Reinhart, like Samuelsson, believes playing for the Oil Kings is going to prove valuable in his professional future. He noted how the team has learned "just what it takes to win."
"Obviously, the NHL is a different game," the 6-foot-4, 205-pound defenseman said. "It's a lot better than junior hockey. But the experience of what it takes and the sacrifices you've got to do is the same, I think."
Another departing Edmonton player who hopes to be playing in the NHL at some point is defenseman Cody Corbett, who recently signed an entry-level contract with the Colorado Avalanche. He explained playing into May for three straight seasons is ideal NHL training, considering how many junior teams have their seasons end in March.
Reflecting on the end of his junior career, the Minnesotan got a little choked up when he spoke about his mom driving all the way to London and bringing along his grandmother, who was able to see him play hockey for the first time.
"It's perfect. It's hard to put it any other words than that," said Corbett, one of three U.S.-born players on the Oil Kings. "I don't think I could imagine it any better."
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