By Mike Griffith
Californian Staff Writer
The Bakersfield Californian
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. – When Joel Irving left Bakersfield last May, hockey wasn’t high on his priority list. He had family issues to deal with and no real passion for the game.
Five games into his ninth professional season, a reinvigorated Irving is having fun and leading the team in point production with two goals and four assists.
“I have family and stuff (in South Carolina) and there was a question of whether I’d come back,” Irving said. “I think a lot of people thought I’d retired and was done. As the summer wore on I started to get that feeling, the fire to play again.”
Irving, 30, put out feelers to see if he was still wanted in Bakersfield. Condors coach Marty Raymond talked with the right winger and a deal was struck.
With only four veteran spots available for skaters under ECHL rules, Raymond said he has to choose those vets carefully and Irving did not give him a reason to say “no.”
“He liked the structure here, wanted to come back and told me exactly what I wanted to hear as to what type of player he is,” Raymond said. “When you’re a vet you have to bring something to the table. You’re there to lead and you have to do something on the ice whether its defensive or offensive and he’s done that.”
Irving (6-foot-four, 225 pounds) came into training camp in great shape, immediately impressing Raymond, who said he was the best player in preseason.
“I think it’s a message to our players,” Raymond said. “Training camp is important but it’s pre-training camp that’s more important. Guys have to be in shape coming in. You really have to be in good shape to get going and Irv did that.”
The results: One of the best starts in his career.
“I hate to say it, but a lot of seasons I’ve always been a slow starter and seem to come around in January or February,” Irving said. “This year I feel my skating is a little bit better, I’m a little stronger and I’ve come in in pretty good shape.
“I sort of need hockey right now and it’s working out for me.”
Also working out for Irving are the new officiating standards, which are designed to curtail holding, interference and hooking.
Irving joked before the season that hooking was one of his strengths and he might have trouble adapting.
It turns out that the new standards play into Irving’s strengths.
“He’s not the fastest guy but he moves his feet well,” Raymond said. “When you’re 6-foot-4, 225, and can skate, not many people can stop you when you drive (to the net).
“He’s better on the power play (and) recognizes a few things that have really helped his game. Instead of 15 or 20 goals maybe he gets 25 or 30.”
Irving is all smiles when talking about the new style of hockey.
“When you’re big and can skate fairly well it helps you quite a bit because they can’t really touch you or hold you back from going to the net,” he said. “I’m going to find myself in front of the net probably more than I did last season.”
And once positioned in front of the net, it’s a whole new experience.
“They can’t touch you in front, they can’t even put a stick on you so you place yourself right there (in front of the net) and they have to get body position on you or you’re going to get some shots,” Irving said. “I can do a lot of things I wasn’t able to do.”
The Condors acquired Irving in late November last year in a trade with South Carolina, where Irving expected to end his career. He had played three seasons there previously, went to Europe for a year and the Central Hockey League for another year before heading back to South Carolina.
“It was shocking for me,” Irving recalled of the trade, “but at the same time it was an experience to come out here.”
He scored 39 points (14 goals) in 54 games with Bakersfield, which he discovered was a pretty good place to play hockey.
“I think things worked out pretty well,” he said. “It’s enabled me to extend my career. I wasn’t satisfied with the way the playoffs ended last year (a Game 7 loss to Fresno in the divisional finals. I’ve won a Kelly Cup before (in South Carolina in 2001) and I think I want one more than ever now. Championships are something to strive for and I’m going to try to win another while I’m here.”