During the course of the regular season, crossing paths with one another is a rare treat for the Western Hockey League’s Latvian players.
In the playoffs, however, it’s another matter.
The exclusive club includes second-year WHLers Edgars Kulda of the Edmonton Oil Kings and Roberts Lipsbergs of the Seattle Thunderbirds and added a third member this season with Rihards Bukarts’ arrival with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Most of the time, the chance to see a familiar face from home is eagerly welcomed and the players talk to each other frequently throughout the season.
Bukarts and Kulda have still been happy to see each other with their teams meeting in the Eastern Conference semifinal, but the tone changed a little bit once the countrymen were trying to one-up each other for the final bragging rights for the season.
"It’s tough, you want to be better than him, but right now he’s kicking my ass pretty bad," said Bukarts, prior to the Wheat Kings’ 5-2 victory last night that trimmed the Oil Kings’ lead to 3-1 in their best-of-seven second-round series.
Kulda has also put the friendship aside in the series, although he said it continues once the buzzer goes at the end of each game.
"At the end there’s no friends on the ice," Kulda said. "You still need to work hard, you need to play hard and do everything for the team. Of course we can have some laughs after the game, but when it’s the game it’s all business."
Kulda, 19, hails from the Latvian capital of Riga, while Bukarts, 18, is from nearby Jurmala, and the players have a lot of history together. They were linemates for two seasons in the SK Riga 18 club team that won back-to-back Latvia/Belarus championships.
"It was all fun. It’s always fun to win," said Kulda, who jumped from a 17-point rookie season to 30 goals and 60 points this year with the Oil Kings. "It’s always good memories, something to remember, how we became champions. Of course we have stories and stuff like that."
It’s Kulda who has had the most fun in the series with four goals and five assists in eight playoff games, scoring three times and adding three helpers in the first four games of the series. Bukarts, who has four assists in eight playoff games, said if the Wheat Kings don’t come back in the series, he’ll hear all about it during the off-season.
"What he going to say all summer, ‘What happened in playoffs, what happened in playoffs?’," said Bukarts, who tied for the lead among first-year WHLers with 28 goals and totalled 54 points in 65 games during the regular season.
Kulda admits there might some boasting by the series winner.
"Of course we can have little jokes about it, not too hard, but still," he smiled.
With both teams drawing heavily on talent from Northern Alberta on their rosters, there are a number of former teammates facing off in the series.
Among the notable connections are Wheat Kings John Quenneville and Jordan Papirny, who played with Oil Kings defenceman Aaron Irving on the Edmonton-based Southside Athletic Club team that won the Alberta Bantam AAA championship in 2011 and went on to finish third in the western Canadian championship in Winnipeg.