Photo Courtesy Getty Images
By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
WASHINGTON, D.C. — When you think about Arturs Irbe, the ECHL probably isn’t the first place your mind wanders.
Whether it was his amazing run with the San Jose Sharks, his two NHL All-Star seasons in 1993-94 and 1998-99 or leading the Carolina Hurricanes all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2002, there are plenty of moments to choose from in his storied 13-year National Hockey League career over a 14-game stint with the Johnstown Chiefs in 2003-04.
But it was "Archie" who brought a positive attitude and a remarkable amount of positive publicity to the league during his stay there, and the current Washington Capitals goalie coach recently granted an exclusive and lengthy interview with ECHL.com about all aspects of his career, including his thoughts on his brief, yet All-Star selection worthy season with the Chiefs.
Here’s how the chat with the two-time Olympian and IIHF Hall of Famer went.
Mike Ashmore, ECHL.com: You had such a great and memorable career even before you got to the NHL, but I think most people would probably remember you from your five seasons with the Sharks early on. You had so many great moments in San Jose…when you think back to your time with the Sharks, what comes to mind?
Arturs Irbe: "It’s pretty simple. It was a new club, and we kind of started a little slow. And then we had our first success, first (time making the) playoffs with the first round upset over the Detroit Red Wings, they were the President’s Trophy winners. It was exciting, eight seed beating the one seed. We kind of put our names on the NHL map and actually the team as a whole put the San Jose name on the professional sports map. It was exciting to be a part of the very beginning of the San Jose professional sports."
ECHL.com: You played for the Stars and Canucks after leaving the Sharks, but if people don’t remember you from the Sharks, they’d certainly remember you from your six seasons with the Hurricanes at the end of your career. From playing in the NHL All-Star Game again to going to the Stanley Cup Finals, you probably had the best individual seasons of your career in North Carolina. Memories from your time there?
Irbe: "Again, it was a brand new team. It was obviously the Whalers that had turned into the Hurricanes, but it was a new team in a new area, down south. There wasn’t too much of a hockey history, so we had to kind of be ice breakers. We had some nice playoff runs there. For me, definitely the fondest memories there are going to the Finals and playing Detroit. Unfortunately, we didn’t come out on top. But that was quite a ride. I think I had my strongest seasons and played my most games in Carolina, so I remember that. We had a pretty good, hard-working group of players down there."
ECHL.com: Something I’m sure you’re asked a lot about as well is your gear. You were well known for leaving your glove, blocker and mask on the bench between periods and perhaps even more so for wearing the old-style mask. Can you tell me the stories behind wearing the old style mask and leaving your gear on the bench?
Irbe: "It was just habit. It was just being stubborn, too. I came from home, and that’s the way things were working back there. Then I come to the NHL, and goalies were always coming onto the ice before the pre-game warmups with their gear on and took the gear down to the locker room. I’m used to a different way. So I came onto the ice with loose gloves, loose mask and I would not change. People thought that was really strange, but it didn’t hurt me. I assume it didn’t hurt my game. I liked to do things my way, if it works, why change it.
"The mask, you wear what’s comfortable, what works for you. I never have been a believer in changing or breaking something that’s fine. No need to."
ECHL.com: So tell me about your time with Johnstown and how it all came about when you got assigned there.
Irbe: "I got assigned there by the Carolina franchise. They were heading in a different direction. They obviously were going for a youth movement, and I was a veteran player. Sometimes, you have to ask what was the reasoning, but usually players don’t go from the NHL to the (ECHL). It was one of those years where I could be sent down to the East Coast because the arbitrator was not in place between the two (sides) to resolve differences between NHL players and the clubs.
It was kind of an illegal move, but because I had no backing, I decided to keep playing. It would have been a long process, and I wanted to play more than go into battle and become a lawyer. I wanted to be a hockey player. At the time, I’m not going to deny it at first, it was kind of embarrassing. But understanding the circumstances, I took it in stride and I decided I’m going to go there and make the best out of it.
"I actually had a tremendous time with a bunch of really, really good young guys and some also seasoned ECHL veterans. With the history of Johnstown and the movie in mind, it was actually quite fun. I would say it might have even been better to be there in Johnstown and walk the paths that the Hanson Brothers had walked instead of being somewhere in Florida, so it was a nice and pretty place. I really enjoyed it, and I believe that short stay in the ECHL at that time really helped me with my future coaching job. Now, I have so much better understanding of the inner proceedings in lower leagues, like the ECHL. So I can understand better their mentality and their abilities and how the whole process works and how the players have to work at what they have to do to move up. When I work with some of the players in our system, I know exactly from where they are coming. That was a big bonus. At the time, I didn’t know that was the reason, and it wasn’t easy to accept. But now, I’ve got to be thankful for having that opportunity to learn about the ECHL a little."
ECHL.com: You played for a few more seasons after leaving Johnstown, but you eventually got into coaching. What made you want to make that transition?
Irbe: "Well, I finished playing in Europe and my main goal was to play in the Olympics in Turin in 2006, and I did that. After that, like every other true athlete that loves his sport, you want to hang on and you want to play as long as you can, but with circumstances and health, I started to show some signs that it was time to quit. But when I finished, I still wanted to play, even after I had hung them up. My inner desire was so strong, that for a couple of years, I really didn’t want to hear or do much about hockey, because it hurt not to be on the ice. It took some time to settle down and come to terms with the fact that you aren’t going to be a player anymore, at least a professional player.
"Then, the hockey starts to come back. This is what I know the best, this is what I like the most. That’s where my heart is. I started working a little bit in the KHL, back in my hometown for a Latvian team, Dinamo Riga. It was fun, but it’s a totally different environment, let’s put it that way, compared to professional hockey in North America. There were issues with education for my son, and I realized that it would be the best route to take to come back and find a job in hockey in North America, preferably the NHL. I got lucky, a job opened and there was some connection with people who knew me, and I got the job with the Caps. I’ve enjoyed it immensely. I have no issues whatsoever to share my secrets or my knowledge. I actually feel that I’m fortunate to be able to give it to somebody else and keep carrying that torch that I have carried for a while. It’s a pretty rewarding feeling. We have two young goalies here right now and a third one in the minors and a few more coming up, and it’s fun to work with them. They all are good, that’s why they’re in the system. But at the same time, they are fresh and there is so much for them to learn, because everybody is a different goaltender when they start their career. From that time on, until they become prime goalies, they change. They change quite a bit. The key is not to change their game, it’s to add to your game. Small mental or technical parts that make you stronger. I think that would be the most fun for me, to be able to help in development and add something to their game and help them become a major force in this league."
ECHL.com: Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby are two guys who recently came through the ECHL with the South Carolina Stingrays to play under your tutelage here in Washington. Can you tell me about what it’s been like to work with those two so far?
Irbe: "Playing in the ECHL is a totally different story than playing in the AHL or NHL, because there is just as much effort on the player’s part, but the skill level is a little bit lower and there are a little bit more mistakes made. The games are more unpredictable, it could sway one way or the other way in the ECHL, that’s the beauty about the game. On the other hand, it’s a little tougher for goalies to play in the ECHL than in the AHL or NHL, because the game becomes more predictable. Players do what they intend to do up here. In the ECHL, some breaks happen and goalies have to really learn how to focus and never let their eye get off the puck. I think they have that experience there, they learned it and when you have been in such an environment where you get so many shots, you really are difference makers. When you move up to the next level, playing becomes easier and you can appreciate that it’s almost a short and accelerated goaltending school that you go through in the ECHL. You go the AHL, and it’s a much slower acceleration in the quality. Of course, the best players are in the NHL, but they are more predictable. You just have to be up to speed and mentally tough to deal with that and technically sound. It’s all about repetition and preparation.
"It was good to see Holtsie do well in the ECHL, and so did Neuvy. They have also been successful in the AHL, so they are taking one step at a time in the proper order. A little bit different than what I had to do (laughs), but they definitely have made an impact and are going in the right direction. Neuvy, right now, is an NHL’er, and Holtsie is right there at the doorstep. He just needs a little bit more seasoning and you have to be hungry to grab the chance when it’s presented to him."