By Mike Mastovich
The Tribune Democrat
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The ECHL Johnstown Chiefs helped goaltender Arturs Irbe earn another opportunity to skate in the National Hockey League.
Irbe’s memorable stay with the Chiefs concluded Tuesday in the veteran goalie’s 5-4 victory over the Peoria Rivermen at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
The NHL Carolina Hurricanes recalled Irbe late Tuesday, and he will report to practice in Raleigh on Wednesday afternoon.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Irbe, who went 10-3-1 with the Chiefs during a stay interrupted by an injury that required surgery in December. “I guess the No. 1 rule in life is you don’t have to worry about things you can’t control. It sounds like cliché, but hard work pays off. You just don’t know when or how.
“I’ve had my share of hard work here. It’s just a start. I’m very delighted to be part of this group of guys. People here have been great to me and supportive. It gave me a chance to be back where I wanted to be, but like I said, it’s just a start. It means a lot.”
In 12 NHL seasons, Irbe has a 213-234-78 record and 2.84 goals against average in 558 career games.
He ranks second to Detroit’s Dominik Hasek in career wins among European-born goaltenders.
“He’s had 12 years of NHL experience and he’s been great to have around the room,” said Chiefs first-year goaltender Cory Campbell, who with rookie netminder David Currie, followed Irbe’s lead. “It’s great to have him around the room, a veteran like that, to come in and help us out.
“It’s been unreal to have his tutoring for us. I’m just glad to see him have another shot to go up. He’s one of the best teachers I ever had.”
Irbe played 14 games with the Chiefs after being assigned to the team a day before the season opener on Oct. 17 at Toledo.
The 5-foot-8 native of Riga, Latvia won his first game as a Chief in front of standing-room-only crowd at Cambria County War Memorial Arena the next night against Long Beach.
The former two-time NHL All-Star made quite an impression, winning his first three starts to earn ECHL Saver of the Week on Oct. 26.
Irbe opened 8-3-1 and was among the league leaders in goals against average and save percentage. He was named the Eastern Conference’s starting goaltender for the ECHL All-Star Game last month in Peoria but was sidelined with a wrist injury.
In his first game back after a 10-week layoff, Irbe and the Chiefs won, 4-3, in overtime at Toledo on Friday.
“We tell all the guys that we’ll be truthful and honest with them and help when their careers can be advanced,” Chiefs coach Toby O’Brien said. “I don’t care if you’re a first-year kid or a 13-year pro making $2.5 million. I’m just happy he came down here and the Johnstown Chiefs could play a role in his going back to the show.
“I’ve never quite handed out a plane ticket to the show before, and I’m glad I could do it for Archie. He deserves it. He taught everybody here a lot about what it takes.”
Irbe, who will turn 37 on Sunday, originally found his way to Johnstown because of a tumultuous contract situation with the Hurricanes.
This season, Irbe will earn $2.7 million dollars. The ECHL Chiefs were responsible for paying Carolina $500 a week toward that total.
The goalie also will earn another $2.5 million next season, a number that might have prevented suitors from calling earlier because of a potential NHL lockout looming in 2004-05.
Two seasons ago, Irbe was the toast of Raleigh, as the Hurricanes advanced to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals against eventual champ Detroit.
Last season Irbe went 7-24-2 with a 3.18 GAA and .877 save percentage in 34 NHL games. He also spent seven games with the AHL Lowell Lock Monsters.
Carolina attempted to trade him. When no team bit on the offer, the ‘Canes waived Irbe, who cleared waivers.
In order to buy out his contract, the Hurricanes would have had to pay him $3.467 million. The club instead offered a buyout of about $1.8 million, a deal Irbe declined.
“I have to emphasize that the best part of it is the people,” Irbe said.
“It’s a quiet town, but the people are good. All the people here have been good to me and good to the hockey. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what level you play at. What counts is what you give, and what you get in return. A lot of people have given me a lot here, and I’m very thankful.”