Nation Network correspondent Andrey Osadchenko caught up with recently signed prospect Kristians Pelss, and talked to him about playing in Edmonton, signing with the Oilers, and what it’s like to be a Latvian hockey player trying to make the NHL.
AO: You’ve played in Canada for two seasons. You don’t have to get adjusted to a new language, nor to local culture. Would you say now that these two seasons overseas gave you exactly what you’d expected or even more than that?
KP: You can say that, I guess. When I first came here, I didn’t know anything. Well, sure, I knew some stuff because I read CHL reviews and interviews with other Russian guys who played here. Although, coming here is like coming to a whole new world. The culture here is a lot different, people are also really different – everything is different. Especially, when it comes to hockey. Hockey over here is like a religion. People treat it more professionally. Here you live hockey.
AO: Were you scared about moving to Canada? Latvia is pretty far away from Edmonton.
KP: I was. But it was something I had to do for hockey. At first, I thought my English was okay but it turned out that it wasn’t. I learned English back in school, but then I came here and I was like – well, this isn’t going to work. I had to learn English. It was really difficult for me to talk at first. I could understand people more or less, but it was tough to express myself. However, you can get used to anything after 6 months. Of course, I miss my home, but hockey is more important.
AO: Did you take any English classes in Edmonton?
KP: No, not really. I just tried to talk to the guys more often. They would correct my mistakes. I also tried to watch movies in English. I didn’t have enough time for school. I had practices in the morning and in the evening I would be so tired that I didn’t want to do anything. So I would talk to my family on Skype and go to bed. That’s how I spent my time.
AO: What do you think about Edmonton? It’s incredibly bigger than your hometown. There’s only about 9,000 people in Preile, Latvia.
KP: It’s a good city, but, to be honest with you, it’s pretty boring. There’s not much to do there. There’s this gigantic mall, though. So I mostly spent my time there. I would either go there, or to the movies. The weather out there is… it’s like it’s winter out there all year round. It’s always really cold. Although, the fans up there are unreal and I like it.
AO: The Oilers drafted you somewhat unexpectedly. Did they take you by surprise?
KP: I didn’t expect it at all. I was at home at that time. My dad went to check out how was the draft going on the Internet, clicked on NHL.com and the Oilers picked within the next few seconds. It was just unreal! We were all very happy about it.
AO: Why it was your dad and not you who followed the draft?
KP: We followed the first couple of rounds together and then I got tired of that. I went to watch TV and my dad continued following the draft. And it worked.
AO: You should keep him close to you – he brings you luck.
KP: (smiles) I spent my whole life with him. I began a life of my own only after I’d moved to Canada. He’s always been my personal coach and my friend.
AO: Your father has a reputation of a devoted hockey fan.
KP: He is a big fan. All he thinks about is hockey. He reads all the reviews, game recaps, columns, interviews, watches all the games… He helps me with everything he can. I’m really grateful to him.
AO: Did he ever play the game himself?
KP: No. He has never even skated. Moreover, he’s never had skates. He would go on a pond and play shinney with his shoes on – he was a goalie. I think, he was dreaming of becoming a hockey player. I got into judo when I was 5. About 3 years after that they built a brand new hockey rink 50k away from our town. My dad went to a store right away and bought me all of the equipment. However, he forgot to sharpen the skates. He just didn’t know that you’re supposed to sharpen them (laughs). Anyway, we came the rink, they gave me that metal thing and I skated a few circles with it. Then I skated a few more circles without it and really liked it. Since then I play hockey.
AO: There were two other Oilers prospects on the Oil Kings with you this season. How close do you guys keep in touch with the Oilers?
KP: We see each other quite often. We have special passes for the Oilers games. If we see each other, we always talk. Sometimes they set up meetings with us, sometimes we just talk about stuff at the arena if we run into each other. The important thing is that we talk. It helps a lot.
AO: Do they say when they expect you to make the NHL?
KP: No, they don’t. They just show me videos and point out where I did well and where I didn’t. Then they would give me a workout program. They’re very helpful.
AO: This season you were more productive than in your rookie season. Do you think it has more to do with just how much you matured, or is it something else?
KP: I think, I’ve gotten more experienced. I mean, it’s my second season here. Of course, I wanted to get more points. I can’t exactly blame my coach, but I didn’t play a lot of powerplay minutes. Thus, I don’t get a lot of points. I know that back in Latvia people go like: ‘What is he ever going to achieve? He doesn’t score a lot of points in a junior league!’ Oilers want me to be a guy who kills penalties and fore-checks. Other than that, yeah, my second year here went a lot smoother. You’re familiar with everything, the guys on the team know what to expect of me, I know what the coach wants to see and so on. It’s a lot easier like this. Besides, this season we had a lot of young guys on our team and, I guess, it also helped.
AO: In North America they see you as a third-liner. What did they see you like in Team Latvia at the 2012 World Juniors? You were a captain for your team at the tourney.
KP: The guys wanted me to be their captain. In all honesty, I didn’t want to be the captain – it’s a huge responsibility! Although, I’m glad they put a lot of trust in me. I tried to keep up with their expectations. There are not a lot of Latvians who play abroad. Perhaps, they wanted me to be the captain because I spent two years in Canada. I also could be a translator in disputes with the refs. There were quite a few funny stories when I was a translator for my teammates after the games. Reporters would ask them a question and I would get stuck with translation. I’d be just standing there trying to remember the translation and everyone would just laugh.
AO: What language do you speak the most in Team Latvia’s locker-room – Russian or Latvian?
KP: A lot of guys worked with Leonid Tambiev and he speaks Russian, so almost everybody on the team can speak Russian. There are a lot of Russian coaches in Latvia so with every passing year there are more and more young Latvians who can speak Russian. I speak Russian my whole life so it wasn’t a problem for me. Although, I do start to forget it now. I hope it comes back.
AO: Do you talk to your dad in Russian?
KP: No, in Latvian. My entire family is Latvian but most of my friends are Russian. So I speak Latvian at home and with a couple of buddies only. I speak Russian more often.
AO: Latvians use Russian swear words all the time when they speak their language. Why? Are there no Latvian swear words?
KP: (laughs) There are some things that only Russian swear words can describe. –
AO: There wasn’t a whole lot of pressure on Team Latvia’s shoulders at the World Juniors. Nobody really expected you to beat Russia in round robin, but that 14-0 loss was rather surprising. Did it really bother you?
KP: Of course, it was frustrating to lose like this but we understand that Russia is Russia. Latvia is a small country and we don’t have a lot of players. We had a lot of young guys on our team. It was their first World Championship of any kind. How do you expect them to play against Kuznetsov? You just stay there in awe of the way he plays. It’s tough to get out there and compete against him. We did put an effort into this, though. It’s tough, but you can get experience from the losses.
AO: You were drafted by Dinamo Riga. Do you keep in touch with them? Do they want to see you in the KHL?
KP: Yes. I was at the training camp with them last season. There was a possibility that I would play for Dinamo if Oilers wasn’t going to offer me a contract. Dinamo was about to sign me but then I talked to my agent and we figured that if I leave for the KHL now, I might never come back again in North America. So we decided to stay here for another season and that was the right decision.
AO: Because you were offered a contract by the Oilers. Does this mean that you’re likely to spend next season in Oklahoma?
KP: Perhaps. We’ll see how it goes in the summer.
AO: Do you set any time for yourself to make it to the NHL?
KP: No. I will try to get to the NHL as long as it takes. It’s the best league in the world. Maybe there won’t be another chance for me like that to make it to the NHL. At the same time, I can always come back.
AO: Many Latvians of your generation name Arturs Irbe their role model in hockey, regardless of their own position. Would you say you’re one of them?
KP: Absolutely. He said it himself – he didn’t have a lot of talent. For him it was all about the hard work. He had a terrific work-ethic. You can’t achieve anything on just pure talent. You have to work hard. This is why I respect Irbe.
AO: Would you say you’re a hard-worker yourself? It looks like everyone thinks of you that way – even in NHL 12 your rating is just 62. You’re not an easy player to score goals with in that game.
KP: I agree. I have a lot of things to work on. Hopefully, my rating will be higher in the next versions of that game.
Osadchenko has also previously interviewed Oilers prospect Martin Marincin.