Goaltender Arturs Irbe, small in stature but big in heart, was the San Jose Sharks’ first star.
Standing at 5-foot-8, Arturs Irbe didn’t exactly promote fear when opposing teams saw him at first. Once the puck dropped, though, that fear took very little time to set in, especially during the 1993-94 campaign, when the Latvian netminder helped the San Jose Sharks achieve one of the most impressive single-season turnarounds in NHL history.
Playing for Constantine
In his first two seasons in teal — also the San Jose Sharks’ inaugural campaigns — Arturs Irbe’s 49 games weren’t particularly noteworthy. In fact, in 1992-93, the Riga native went 7-26-0 with a 4.11 goals-against average and an .886 save percentage. Of course, while these numbers can largely be attributed to the team’s collective futility, Irbe was nonetheless without direction during his early days with the team.
“I think he really saw a lot of potential in me,” Irbe said of Constantine. “I definitely felt confidence and full support, which was the key because my first year in San Jose when I was called up, I think I won the first two games against Edmonton and the Islanders and still got sent down.”
In his first stint in the NHL in 1991-92, Irbe went 2-6-3 with a 4.47 GAA and an .868 save percentage.
Most would have likely pressed the proverbial panic button. But, when Irbe returned to Kansas City, he was reassured of his coach’s faith. After all, the North American game just took some getting used to.
“For me, as a goalie who has played elite level in Europe, it was a culture shock [playing in North America],” the former netminder admitted. “I was young and confident but I did not know the system per se, so I was really thinking, ‘These people, they really don’t see what I can do for them,’ and for me, it was like a red flag to the bulls. So, I said, ‘I’ll show you! I’ll show you what I can do.’”
As fate would have it, the Sharks would hire Constantine to replace George Kingston behind the San Jose bench in time for the 1993-94 season. This left Irbe filled with joy and even relief, especially after a memorable phone call.
“Luckily, Kevin got the job as the head coach and I remember he called me that summer,” Irbe recalled. “It was very early. I think on the first or second day [of Constantine’s hiring], he called and said, ‘Arch, we have big things to do. You are going to be my guy.’”
Irbe, with a newfound jolt of confidence, was over the moon.
“It was a boost,” he beamed. “So, I thought, ‘This year, I have a shot. I have shown [Constantine] that I can deliver. Now, he’s in the NHL and this is my year.’”
Trailblazing a New Path
While it may not have been much of a concern at the time, Irbe realized there weren’t many European-born goaltenders gracing NHL nets in the early- to mid-1990s.
In fact, aside from Sergei Mylnikov’s 10-game stint with the Quebec Nordiques in 1989-90, no Soviet-born goaltender had ever played in the NHL up to Irbe’s NHL debut in November 1991.
“You have to remember that European goalies had not broken into the league at all except Pelle Lindbergh, and his career was short for tragic reasons,” Irbe noted. “But, he [had been] the only European goalie that really made it into the big leagues [at that point].”
It’s safe to say that Irbe had his work cut out to prove himself.
“There was this perception that for Europeans, it’s hard for them to play NHL hockey and [play the] tough schedule. Whatever the thought process was, I could sense it that I had to break the barrier in order to succeed,” Irbe elaborated. “Luckily, I had a supporting cast as I was not the only [European goalie]. There was also Dominator [Dominik Hasek] breaking into the league at the same time. So, there were two of us and the rest of it is history.”
As far as Kevin Constantine was concerned, though, as long as Irbe could stop the puck, he could have been from outer space for all he cared.
“Kevin believed in me,” Irbe fondly reflected. “He rode me. I played, I guess, a record number of minutes in a season by a goalie and I loved it. I was ready for a challenge because I used to play all the games in Europe, in Dynamo Riga, before the NHL. I played in every single game. I never missed a beat. Of course, there were only 42, 43 games a season, something like that, but still, with the breaks and everything, I played every single game. It was normal, I guess, and that was fun.”
Ignorance Is Bliss
Probably one of the biggest things that stood out about Arturs Irbe as a goaltender was his stature.
Standing at 5-foot-8, the former Dynamo Riga netminder wasn’t exactly the most foreboding presence between the pipes. That didn’t bother Irbe, though. In fact, he wasn’t even aware that size was a factor playing goal.
“I didn’t even realize that that could have been an issue in the NHL,” Irbe said, laughing. “I had proven that I could play at the top level and be successful, but again, in the NHL, it was a different animal, I guess you can say, and I had to battle that. But, I did not even blink an eye on that. Whatever people thought, for me, it was not an issue and those people were mistaken.”
At the end of the day, Irbe’s success came down to one factor.
“Confidence was the key because I really saw it as a game where results matter,” he added. “It’s not statistics per se where it was the measurements, et cetera, it was whether you could get the job done. It was not an issue and I didn’t even realize it was. [Opposing teams] wanted to say, ‘Oh, we can go top shelf on this guy,’ and I’d say, ‘Okay, go ahead. I’ll just stand up. I don’t have to go into the splits to make a top-shelf save.’”
In hindsight, it is nearly impossible to believe that a team can improve by 22 wins and 58 points in just one season. Yet, that was exactly the case for the 1993-94 San Jose Sharks. But, a turnaround of such magnitude isn’t accomplished by one or two people. It takes a heck of a lot more in terms of people, patience, and the willingness to adapt and evolve.
Irbe took me through some of those adjustments that helped the Sharks reach unprecedented heights.
“First of all, we came in hungry and the team chemistry was just insane,” emphasized the 54-year-old. “We had found a formula very early. We had our penalty-killers, we had our own KLM line with [Jeff] Norton and Ozo [Sandis Ozolinsh] in the back — or GLM with [Johan] Garpenlov there — and Kevin figured out that as long as these guys deliver, he better give them freedom to wheel because, otherwise, if you put them in a system, which Kevin was a big believer in, there won’t be results.”
We’re getting ahead of ourselves though: 1993-94 didn’t start out great for the San Jose Sharks, as they limped out of the gate 0-8-1. Irbe and Constantine, however, were undeterred.
“We couldn’t score early on in the season and him being a really good coach, he figured out that he had to adjust because this is what he had and he had to squeeze out everything from the guys,” Irbe explained. That’s when Constantine allowed Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov, and Garpenlov to do their own thing. “Because he was so big on discipline, he had to make sure that the free-wheeling game [didn’t] hurt the team and the rest of the team plays the way that they’re supposed to.”
Aside from talent and on-ice success, the mix of personalities on the roster also helped towards the team’s massive overhaul.
“We had characters,” an amused Irbe noted. “It was one of the most fun years that you can have in the NHL because we believed in each other. We were outcasts, some of us, and we just went all the way we could.”
While they were still a few years away from achieving Stanley Cup success, the Detroit Red Wings were nonetheless a force to be reckoned with in 1994.
The San Jose Sharks, in spite of their turnaround, still finished 18 points behind the Red Wings, who happened to be their first-round opponents. The rest is history.
“With Detroit, we surprised them,” Irbe remembered. “We exposed some of their weaknesses because they were a great team; but on defense, there were some deficiencies. They were mostly dominant on offense, so we had to shut them down. Now, looking back, I took that challenge in stride. Being an experienced guy right now as I am, I think back, ‘What was I thinking going up against a super team, an all-star team?’ I just wanted to have a shot. It was my first playoff and we went.”
Unfortunately for Irbe, his performance in Game Six of this series was one to forget as he allowed six goals on 26 shots before being pulled. The Red Wings won in convincing fashion, 7-1, and had all the confidence to win the series back at home.
Kevin Constantine, as he did all season long, had faith in Irbe to bounce back in Game Seven. The Latvian rewarded his head coach’s faith, stopping 28 of 30 shots to lead the Sharks to the upset.
“Game 7 was big, we scored some goals, made some saves, made some great defensive plays, and after that, we really believed that we could go all the way. We really did,” Irbe beamed. “It wasn’t far off.”
In the next round, although they took their opponents to seven games once again, the Toronto Maple Leafs got the better of the Sharks, winning Game Seven to advance to their second-straight conference final.
“When we went into the Toronto series, it took us to seven games and we were a crossbar away from winning,” Irbe noted. “So, even though our fortunes went in another direction, we were up against the big, nasty, hard-checking Toronto Maple Leafs with some tenacity and skill up front. That was not an easy task.
“We surprised a lot of people. That’s the key we have to remember ourselves and I have no remorse whatsoever that we could not go further. We could have, but we gave it our all and gave them a run for their money.”
After helping the San Jose Sharks pull off another first-round playoff upset in 1995, Irbe spent another season in San Jose before signing with the Dallas Stars in 1996. Yet, while the end of his tenure in San Jose marked a sad time for him, the Latvian netminder was eternally thankful for his experiences with the Sharks.
“San Jose taught me what success is,” a matter-of-fact Irbe stated. “Also, it humbled me because I was demoted and had to learn to deal with the adversity. It was not a smooth ride from then on from 1993-94. I never doubted my abilities but I needed a chance. I went to Dallas and seized the opportunity when I could and I was very thankful to [Stars GM] Bob Gainey for giving me that shot. He was very patient with me and I thought after a slow start, I had a very good run especially when [Stars starter] Andy Moog was out with injury.”
Following his lone season in Dallas, though, Irbe returned to the West Coast, this time, though, with the Vancouver Canucks, where he played for one of hockey’s most infamous coaches.
“I went to Vancouver and quite honestly, that season (1997-98) was the best learning experience I could have had in the NHL because I was playing for ‘Captain Hook’, Mike Keenan,” Irbe recalled, chuckling. “God bless [Canucks GM] Pat Quinn. He brought me in and I knew he had tons of confidence in me but he got let go pretty early. So, then I had to succeed against all the odds for the first time in my life. I felt like Mike was testing me to the brink, like a lack of oxygen completely. So, I played in 41 games, and quite honestly, out of those games, only 25 games were complete games. In one game, I was pulled late in the season after surrendering [just] one goal.”
In spite of how difficult it was playing for Iron Mike, Irbe nonetheless appreciated his time playing for Keenan.
“Listen, I’m very thankful to Mike because he made me as strong as I could be,” a confident Irbe added. “If I would have just gone into self-pity or had lost the confidence or had lost the drive or couldn’t squeeze my feet or prove that I could deliver, I could not have had that success in Carolina.”
That success in Carolina, by the way, resulted in the club’s first-ever Stanley Cup Final appearance for the franchise. Irbe led the underdog Hurricanes all the way to the Final and even though they lost — to the Red Wings in five games — Irbe wouldn’t have changed a thing. That even includes surrendering the triple-overtime Game 3 goal to his former San Jose teammate, Igor Larionov.
After retiring as a player in 2007, Arturs Irbe would transition into the coaching ranks.
After serving as an NHL goaltending coach — first with the Washington Capitals and then the Buffalo Sabres — Irbe would return to his native Latvia where he has been the goaltending coach for HK Kurbads since 2017.
He made some stops along the way, but no stop was more pivotal for Arturs Irbe’s playing career than San Jose. This was where he really established himself as an NHL netminder, and for that reason — one of many — there will always be a special place in Irbe’s heart for the San Jose Sharks. The feeling is more than mutual as in 2010, Irbe was inducted into the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame.
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