By Mike Mastovich
The Johnstown Chiefs filled their final roster spot yesterday with the most high-profile transaction in the team’s 16-year ECHL history.
Former NHL all-star goaltender Arturs Irbe, who helped lead the Carolina Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals, was assigned to Johnstown yesterday afternoon.
“It’s a great bunch of guys. I got a chance to meet up with them and had a practice,” Irbe said last night during a telephone interview in Toledo, Ohio. “They didn’t take it easy on me, I’ve got to tell you. The level of this league has improved each year.”
The veteran goalie also is familiar with the area’s hockey heritage.
“It’s an honor to be a Johnstown Chief. I can say I played in the same town as the Hanson Brothers,” Irbe said, laughing about the characters in the movie “Slap Shot” filmed in Johnstown. “Hopefully I’ll get to wear the blue, gold and white uniform some day.”
Irbe, 36, joined the Chiefs and practiced with the team yesterday at the Toledo Sports Arena. He will be available for Friday’s regular-season opener against the Toledo Storm, but possibly won’t start until the Chiefs’ home opener against Long Beach on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
The Chiefs had 20 players on the roster prior to Irbe’s assignment, which means another move must be made.
“I think everyone was kind of stunned,” said Chiefs player-assistant coach and team captain Brent Bilodeau, an 11th-year pro and former first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens.“They thought it was a joke at first. It was like, ‘Are you serious?’ The guys are pretty excited. I think the young goaltenders are excited. What a great experience to play with a NHL veteran who’s been around for a long time.”
Chiefs’ majority owner Neil Smith, the former New York Rangers general manager, had a significant role in Irbe’s assignment.
“I’m friends with (Carolina Hurricanes General Manager) Jimmy Rutherford, and it was something Jimmy had called me about and asked if I would be interested in,” Smith said yesterday when reached in Toronto. “I said, ‘Of course.’
“We’ll see how the fans react to it, but we’re certainly hoping that it will spur a lot of interest in the team in Johnstown and at the same time make us much more competitive.”
Rutherford and Carolina assistant GM Jason Karmanos could not be reached for comment.In 558 career NHL games, Irbe is 213-234-78. Only Detroit’s Dominik Hasek has more wins among European-born goalies.
“I’m a big believer in first impressions,” said second-year Chiefs head coach Toby O’Brien. “My first impression of Arturs on and off the ice was excellent. I’m looking forward to this as a coach.“We’re taking it one week at a time right now. He has a very positive attitude and just in one afternoon has meshed extremely well with our guys. From what I’ve seen in one practice, he’ll work harder than most players to be successful and help the team succeed. This guy works his tail off at practice.”
The native of Riga, Latvia, spent the last five seasons with the Hurricanes, including 34 games last season when he was 7-24-2 with a 3.18 goals against average as Carolina went from first to last in the Southeast Division. Irbe also played seven games with Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Lowell, Mass., last season after he cleared waivers in February.
Published reports list Irbe’s Carolina salary as $2.7 million this year.
Only $500 a week will count against the ECHL salary cap.
Two seasons ago, Irbe went 20-19-11 with a 2.54 GAA. Carolina advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, losing in five games to the Red Wings. He won 10 games in the 2002 playoffs and had the league’s third-best postseason goals against average (1.67) and save percentage (.938). Irbe made 50 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss to Detroit in Game 3 of the Finals.
“Sometimes life throws us curveballs,” O’Brien said. “This happens to be one of those times. A situation between Arturs and Carolina developed, and it did not look like he would be playing there. There was an effort to place him in the minors. In today’s game there is no International League in existence. The American League is focusing solely on youth and prospects.“In Carolina’s case, they’re splitting their AHL affiliate in Lowell with Calgary. That meant the No. 1 prospect in each organization made that placement in Lowell impossible (for Irbe).”
Lowell has former Chiefs goaltender Dany Sabourin (2-0), a Calgary contract player, and Carolina prospect Patrick DesRochers (1-0). The NHL Hurricanes have Kevin Weekes and Jamie Storr in net.
Carolina also has ECHL working agreements with the Florida Everblades and Greensboro Generals. Florida has goaltenders Jeff Maund and Daniel Boisclair on the roster, and the Generals have veteran Daniel Berthiaume and Martin Kresac.
“The placement at the next highest professional league was chosen, and that’s the ECHL,” O’Brien said. “The friendship between Neil Smith and Jim Rutherford initiated this process.”The Chiefs also have first-year pro David Currie, 21, and second-year pro Cory Campbell, 22, in goal. Both are former Ontario Hockey League standouts, with Campbell playing part of last season in the United Hockey League.
“Arturs has already been talking to both kids,” O’Brien said. “I told them face-to-face to use this as a learning experience. As a first-year pro, to have somebody who’s been to the Stanley Cup Finals and played in the Olympics, one of the top NHL goaltenders over the past decade, work side by side with you, that is invaluable.”
Irbe said the ECHL talent might be underestimated at the higher levels in hockey.
“The skill level is very good. It’s improving every year, especially since the IHL folded,” said Irbe, who played in the 1994 and ’99 NHL All-Star Game. “There have been less jobs in the AHL. That has created some room for improvement in the ECHL. I can witness it first hand myself. It’s not a walk on the beach. These guys have taken their business very seriously.”
When asked if he will start tonight, Irbe said, “I’ll leave it to Toby. He controls that department. We are here as his soldiers. We’ll go to war when we are told to.”