EDMONTON - On May 1, 2012, Kristians Pelss put pen to paper on a three-year entry-level contract with the Oilers. That day Kristians' billets, Joe and Jana Sheen, invited us into their home to discuss the promising young winger's new deal, his transition to life in North America and much more.
This is the story of what Pelss described that day as the happiest moment of his life:
"I'm very happy about it, it's the City of Champions," he said, smiling, as supportive teammates looked on at Rexall Place. "I really like it here. Some days it's maybe a little cold, but it's good and it feels great (to sign a contract).
"It's all about hard work, playing a lot of games and getting the experience."
The 5-foot-11, 175-pound product of Preili, Latvia was originally selected in the seventh round, 181st overall in 2010.
"He's got great speed, he's got a great shot, but his overall game has developed immensely since the start of last year," said Oil Kings Head Coach Derek Laxdal. "He's a big part of our penalty kill, he's a big part of our power-play. It's great to see him get rewarded for his hard work."
Just as the news broke, Pelss' teammates rushed to his locker stall and embraced him with a shower of hugs and brotherly cheers. It's a tight bond, an irreplaceable, closely-knit relationship. When an ocean and over 7,000 kilometres stand between home and his home away from home in Sherwood Park, it's of vital importance.
Daily Skype calls keep Pelss in close contact with his parents (Einars and Inta) and three sisters (Lauma, Lasma and Lev) across the pond. Einars hasn't missed a minute of his son's career, either, as early morning wake-up calls are set to catch Kristians' games on the internet.
While a 4am puck drop makes the relationship seem so distant, Kristians isn't alone when it comes to in-person love and support.
Joe and Jana Sheen are Kristians' billets. The couple has welcomed the youngster into their home, to live and grow up alongside their son, Matt (17), and daughter, Micaela (20). Together, they've watched Kristians become an adult, learn a new language, and now sign an NHL contract under their roof.
"If we can help someone progress in their career, I think it's excellent," Joe said. "Kris has that drive, determination and leadership -- it's great to have someone like that in our home. Watching Kris improve to where he is now, it makes us proud. We're going to try and do whatever we can to help him in his career."
"He's like one of our own kids," Jana added. "He's very polite and easy to get along with. He's always helping with everything we cook."
"And if he doesn't like the food, he'll still smile," Joe laughed.
The Sheens hadn't considered billeting until it was brought to Matt's attention at school. As it turned out, Oil Kings defenceman Mark Pysyk's dad, Terry, is a vice-principal at Salisbury High in Sherwood Park.
"Matt brought that (information) home," Joe explained. "I told him to research it. He researched it; we applied and went through the [interview] process, got accepted and brought Kristians into our home."
"I'd say he's pretty much like my brother," Matt said. "I play hockey and so does my dad, so we get along great. When we're not watching Kris play, we all watch games on TV. It's great -- it brings everyone together.
"Kris is pretty quiet and laid back. Most of the time he's in his room or relaxing on the couch, watching TV or talking to his family back home."
Laid back? Somewhat surprising, given Kristians' gritty and relentlessly aggressive style between the boards.
"I guess he gets all his aggression out on the ice," Matt laughed.
Either that or video games. X-Box and Nintendo Wii are household staples, meaning nightly NHL 12 battles are the norm in the family's sports-themed basement.
Missing their brother and vice-versa in Kristians' case, Lauma, Lasma and Lev have all visited Edmonton to meet the Sheens, tour the city and catch as many Oil Kings games as possible once each season. In doing so, special ties and lifelong friendships have been created through the families' common bond.
"They're a very warm and caring family," Joe said. "We've learned a lot about their culture. We can come together, sit around the table and laugh. We're all so proud that Kris is doing well and we want to encourage him to do even better."
"I feel like my billets are my family," Kristians added. "It feels like home."
So it should. Home and workplace were once separated by sea; now, under contract and ready to take the next step in his career, they're intertwined.
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com |