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The 26th Man

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers
Photo by Marko Ditkun/Edmonton Oil Kings

PORTLAND, OR-When the Edmonton Oil Kings lost the first two games of their WHL final series against the Portland Winterhawks, Kristians Pelss was there.

When the team was down 2-0 in game three, Pelss was there. When they rallied to win game three and then win the next two games, Pelss was there. He was there when they lost game six on home ice with the chance to close out the series and he was with them when they won it all in game seven in Portland.

Throughout this series and this entire season, Pelss has been there.

“He’s been a big part of our season,” head coach Derek Laxdal said.

Pelss, a member of the Oil Kings from 2010 to 2012, died last June at the age of 20 in his native Latvia. His teammates chose to honour him this season and carry him with them wherever the schedule took them. A Pelss jersey has been with the team at home and on the road, serving as a reminder that he is still with these players.

Oil Kings Head Equipment Manager Rogan Dean and Head Athletic Therapist Brian Cheeseman were instrumental in helping memorialize Pelss this season.

Kristians Pelss (above) holds the Ed Chynoweth Cup up after the 2012 WHL final. Photo by Andy Devlin/Edmonton Oil Kings.

“After the passing, obviously it was very tragic,” Dean said. “He’s a very close friend of ours and we wanted to make sure we honoured him throughout the year. We have a (player of the game) jacket that we re-named ‘The Pelssy’ and that goes to the hardest worker. We’ve got the jersey that travels with us wherever we are and we’ve got one hanging in our home dressing room. You know he’s always looking down on us and he’s always dear to our hearts and he’s definitely with us today.

Oil Kings forward Mitch Moroz was especially close to Pelss. Both players were drafted by the Edmonton Oilers and both players grew to be close friends. Moroz has a Pelss jersey at home in his room and he looks to it everyday, much like how the team looks to the jersey at the rink.

“It just gives us that spiritual lift,” Moroz said. “We know he’s up there and he’s smiling right now. Every time we go out we see his jersey, every time I go to bed I see his jersey, every time I wake up I see his jersey. I know he helped us out.”

Moroz hoisted Pelss’ jersey following the team’s series win in the semifinals. He has also paid tribute to his friend in other ways throughout the season.

“Mitch and him were obviously very close and I would say he means more to Mitch than anyone else on our team,” Dean explained. “If you look at Mitch right now, he’s covered in ’26’ all over him. He’s got it on his skates, he writes it on his wrists, he’s taped up in other areas and it’s all over him. We’re always paying respect to him.”

Dean stepped onto the ice following the team’s win in game seven of the WHL final on Monday night, carrying the number 26 jersey. It was an emotional moment for many of the Oil Kings who have come to use their fallen friend as inspiration and motivation. With the players celebrating the win together, it was only fitting that Pelss would be out there with them.

Photo by Marko Ditkun/Edmonton Oil Kings

“I give credit to (Steven Lines, a member of the training staff),” Dean said. “He’s the guy that makes sure to gather up the jerseys for the black aces and obviously Pelss’ jersey was hanging in our dressing room and he made sure it got out here. It was very important for all the guys that played with Pelss that we remember him and he’s just as much a part of this as everybody else is. He’s definitely here with us right now.”

In that moment it was clear that the Oil Kings were in it to win for Pelss. As Moroz grasped the jersey of his fallen friend, the emotions of the night overcame him.

“Yeah, yeah sure,” said Moroz, who could barely finish between tears of happiness and remembrance. “Yes, it’s for him… and the boys. I’m so proud of these guys.”

Who could fault Moroz for being emotional? The Oil Kings’ win was the culmination of a season of resiliency and determination. It starts and ends with the memory of Pelss and the bond of a group of brothers.

“It’s been a kind of play for Pelssy mentality and obviously to have that part of our motto and part of our group is pretty important,” Laxdal said. “We can’t lose the fact that these kids came together and they gelled and they had a great team chemistry from the start of the season. That just plays into the whole Pelssy thing. I think it’s a great story. What a night for these kids.”

Over the course of the season, these young men became bound together by their will to fight on. Of course, Pelss was there for that too.

“Whenever we’re down or need a pick-me-up we look at the jersey and we think of what he would do,” Dean said. “He just always left it out on the ice.”

The team’s captain Griffin Reinhart says Pelss is never far from their thoughts.

“Every game we came to play he was always on the back of our minds and we even wear a sticker on our helmet for him,” he said. “He’s never forgotten in this organization.”

“It’s amazing,” Curtis Lazar said following the win in Portland. “We wish Pelssy were here but he motivated us to challenge ourselves on the ice and off the ice. He’s here with us and he’s a big part of this season for sure.”

25 players made the trip to Portland for game seven. Fittingly, you could say it was the one who once wore number 26 who was the 26th man for Edmonton Monday night.

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