Editor’s Note: It’s “Underdog” week at SB Nation, and, here at Canes Country, we’re going to be taking a look back at some of the more memorable underdog players in the team’s history. The Hurricanes have had a number of players who exceeded expectations as a low draft pick, undrafted player, bargain free agent or seemingly minor trade to carve out a role and become a fan favorite. Today, we feature the week’s second goalie.
“But he’s too short!”
For hockey players who didn’t win the genetic lottery and have a 5’ in their height record, they’ve heard that far too often.
Martin St. Louis? “Too short!”
Chad LaRose? “Too short!”
Ray Whitney? Nathan Gerbe? Jonathan Marchessault? Alex DeBrincat? “Too short!”
Arturs Irbe? Yep. “Too short!”
Yet the diminutive Latvian overcame the poor hand he was dealt by the NHL’s preoccupation with height and fashioned a record-setting career over 13 seasons and nearly 600 games, becoming a fan favorite in two markets while proving that sometimes, underdogs can turn out just fine.
Irbe was drafted in the ninth round (which no longer exists) by the Minnesota North Stars (which no longer exist) in 1989, at age 22, after being passed over in the previous four drafts despite having served as Dynamo Riga’s number-one goaltender since 1987. At the time, Irbe’s native Latvia was part of the Soviet Union, and while Irbe’s height certainly had an influence on his late draft position, just as impactful (if not moreso) was the fact that there was no guarantee Irbe would make the move to North America.
That fear was well-founded; it wasn’t until 1991, just prior to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, that Irbe came across the Atlantic. He was already 24, but now a part of the San Jose Sharks after that organization’s split from the North Stars in the 1991 offseason. Veteran goaltender Jeff Hackett would be the first choice goaltender for the Sharks, but Irbe was right in the mix for playing time.
It didn’t take him long to stake his claim. After spending most of his first North American season in the minors, Irbe took the reins as a main starter in a timeshare with Hackett in 1992, and earned the undisputed number-one job a year later, a year in which he was named the Sharks’ representative to the 1994 All-Star Game.
That 1993-94 season was where his legend began, specifically in the playoffs, when the sub-.500 Sharks, given very little chance against the top-seeded Red Wings, knocked off the 100-point powerhouse in seven games in the first round. Irbe wasn’t done, though, backstopping the Sharks to within a game of the conference final before falling to Toronto in another seven-game series in round 2.
That 1993-94 season was the first of three seasons in Irbe’s career where he played more than 70 games, taking the net 74 times in the regular season plus 14 in the playoffs. Half of the next season was wiped out by a lockout, but Irbe again played the vast majority of the Sharks’ games, nearly 80% of the 48-game schedule. Over the span of two seasons, Irbe played 112 of the Sharks’ 130 games, and that workload seemed to catch up to him in 1995-96, when journeyman Wade Flaherty took the number-one role from the underperforming Irbe.
Irbe’s days as a starter seemed numbered. He hit restricted free agency in the summer of 1996 and, while the Sharks offered a two-way contract that seemed to ticket Irbe for the minors, Irbe instead signed a one-way offer sheet from the Dallas Stars worth just $400,000 that the Sharks didn’t match. A nondescript season backing up Andy Moog followed, which led to another one-year deal to share time with Kirk McLean in Vancouver the next season.
But in the 1998 offseason, Jim Rutherford needed a goalie. McLean had been traded to the Carolina Hurricanes for Sean Burke during the previous season, and with McLean a free agent and minor-leaguers Pat Jablonski and Mike Fountain no more than organizational depth, the Hurricanes had Trevor Kidd and little else. Assured of an open competition for the number-one role, the 31-year-old Irbe signed a one-year deal with the Hurricanes.
It was the start of a beautiful relationship.
Irbe won the competition and played 62 games, helping the Hurricanes win the Southeast Division crown and becoming one of the original fan favorites among the crowd that trekked to Greensboro 41 times that season. His puck-handling skills were, um, somewhat questionable, leading to occasional “Leash the Latvian!” chants, but Hurricanes fans were cheering for an underdog franchise, and Irbe exemplified the team’s scrappy approach to competition.
His season went so well that he signed a two-year contract in 1999, the first time he’d signed a multi-year deal since he was in San Jose in 1994. Irbe went back to his workhorse ways, playing 75 games in 1999-2000 and an eye-popping 77 the following season, tying the NHL record, when he led the Hurricanes back to the postseason. The three-season run from 1998 to 2001 was Irbe at his peak, as he posted a .912 save percentage and a 2.37 goals-against average while coming within two wins of 100. The Hurricanes rewarded Irbe with a new three-year contract in the 2001 offseason that contained a no-trade clause.
But as happened in San Jose, the workload caught up to Irbe. The most talented team of his time in Carolina was the 2002 squad that won the Eastern Conference title, but Irbe’s numbers were starting to waver. Rutherford had brought in Tom Barrasso as a backup, and while the 17-year veteran was no threat to Irbe’s starting job, he at least provided a safety net that the likes of Eric Fichaud and Tyler Moss in previous years couldn’t. With the Hurricanes positioned to win their third division title in four seasons, Rutherford upgraded at the trade deadline, bringing in Kevin Weekes to be Irbe’s new backup - and Weekes was most certainly a threat to steal starts.
That’s exactly what he did. Even in the playoffs, an ineffective Irbe was lifted for Weekes, who carried the Hurricanes through the end of the first round and the beginning of the second. It wasn’t until the Molson Miracle that Irbe got back into the net, and he held onto that spot all the way through the Stanley Cup Final. With Weekes returning for the next season, and Irbe already under contract, it seemed that a timeshare was in the offering for the 2002-03 season.
But no one expected Irbe to fall apart the way he did that season. Weekes became the starter by default because Irbe was, simply put, horrendous. The Hurricanes only won 22 games a season after a conference championship, and Irbe’s .877 save percentage and 7-24-2 record had a lot to do with that. Hockey Reference calculated Irbe’s goals-saved above average in the 2002-03 season as -25.61, meaning that a league-average goalie that season facing the 816 shots that Irbe saw would have allowed nearly 26 fewer goals than Irbe did.
With one year remaining on his contract, and a no-trade clause in place, the Hurricanes were ready but unable to move on from Irbe. Rutherford signed Jamie Storr to back up Weekes in 2003, and attempted to buy Irbe out, but in the pre-2005 lockout NHL, a buyout required the player’s agreement, and Irbe refused the buyout. With nowhere left to go, and a Lowell Lock Monsters club already overflowing with goalies thanks to a split affiliation between Carolina and Calgary, Irbe was exiled to the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL.
But the 37-year-old wasn’t done yet. The 2003-04 season went largely nowhere, and Storr proved a disaster as Weekes’ backup. With a playoff spot still a (remote) possibility, and looking at a scenario where Weekes could approach Irbe’s stratospheric numbers from a few seasons prior, the Hurricanes swallowed their pride and recalled Irbe in February. His final appearances with the Hurricanes were an improvement on his annus horribilis a season prior, going 5-2-1 after spending most of the season as one of the top goaltenders in the ECHL.
There was no question, though, that time was running out on his tenure with Carolina, and just before his contract expired he was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets for future considerations. He never played in Columbus, returning to Europe when the lockout began and bouncing around to clubs in Austria, Slovakia and Latvia for his final three professional seasons.
Following his retirement as a player, he began a career as a goaltending coach, first with his old club Dynamo Riga and later returning to the NHL as the goaltending coach for the Washington Capitals and, later, Buffalo Sabres. In 2014, at age 47, Irbe dressed as an EBUG following an injury to the Sabres’ Michal Neuvirth.
Irbe’s career with the Hurricanes ended ignominiously, but there’s no denying the quality he provided at his peak. When he parted ways with the Hurricanes in 2004, he was the franchise’s all-time leader in games played and wins (both regular-season and playoffs), shutouts and minutes played, all of which were later surpassed by Cam Ward.
Not bad for a player who was, like so many others, automatically written off as too short.