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Ex-Shark of the Week: Arturs Irbe

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Week Two throws it back to an early Sharks legend.

Arturs Irbe
Sharks legend Arturs Irbe: Like Wall.

It’s hard to believe for the people who were around to remember him, but Arturs Irbe played just 183 regular season games in Sharks teal. He was the undisputed starter for just two seasons, one of them shortened by lockout. But Irbe looms large in San Jose Sharks lore. He was the first person to seize the mantle of most beloved Shark, and his play helped to establish the Sharks in a time when the nascent team was a joke to many hockey fans. He is remembered fondly among NHL fans for his grimy-looking pads — which he repaired and maintained himself — but was so much more than that.

Arturs Irbe was born in Riga, Latvia in February of 1967. He learned to play hockey behind the Iron Curtain, and emerged as a young star in the Soviet League for Dinamo Riga. Irbe caught the world’s attention when he backstopped the Soviet Union to back-to-back World Championship gold medals in 1989 and 1990. Writing for Sports Illustrated in 1989, E.M. Swift was disappointed by most of the Soviet talent on exhibition in a goodwill tour of the United States, except for the “superb goalie of the mediocre Dynamo Riga team.” Named the outstanding goalie of the 1990 World Championships, Irbe was unquestionably the most promising goaltending in Eastern Europe. Here’s a video of Irbe stonewalling Team USA in the shootout to win the gold at the 1990 Goodwill Games in Tacoma, Washington:

In 1991, two things happened that would change Arturs Irbe’s life forever. On March 3rd, 73% of Latvians voted for independence from the Soviet Union in a nonbinding referendum that signified the effective end of Kremlin rule over the nation. On May 30th, the Sharks selected Arturs Irbe with the 18th pick of the 1991 dispersal draft. Irbe, who had been drafted 196th overall by the Minnesota North Stars in the 1989 Entry Draft, was the only foreign player chosen by the nascent Sharks franchise. With Latvian independence on the horizon, the question was no longer whether Irbe would be able to leave Europe. The question now was how he would perform once he came to the States, the Sharks, and the National Hockey League.

Irbe broke camp with the 1991-92 Sharks. They weren’t very good, and he appeared in 14 games in a season that saw [deep breath] Irbe, Jeff Hackett, Brian Hayward, Wade Flaherty, and Jarmo Myllys all appear in net for the Sharks. Irbe spent much of the year in Kansas City under tutelage of Kevin Constantine, a relationship that would later pay dividends on the ice.

In 92-93 the Sharks were one of the worst teams in league history. Irbe split the goaltending load with Jeff Hackett and Brian Hayward. In front of a porous defense, he had an .886 save percentage. That sounds awful, but Hackett (who had a long and fruitful career) posted an .856, and Hayward (who also had a career, and now spouts nonsense on TV) posted an .846. One bright spot: Irbe recorded the first shutout in franchise history, a 6-0 blanking of the LA Kings, on November 18, 1992. Kings goalie Kelly Hrudey was embarrassed: "There are some losses where you don't feel like leaving the dressing room. It's like a safe haven.”

In the 1993 offseason the Sharks decided to give the coaching reigns to Kevin Constantine. Constantine had a strong relationship with Irbe and decided to give Arturs his full confidence as starting goalie. Irbe started 74 games that season, and set a new NHL record (since broken) of 4,412 minutes in goal. He was fantastic, posting an .899 save percentage and making astonishing saves look somewhat routine. The newly-opened San Jose Arena resonated with cheers of “Archie! Archie!” and Irbe’s slogan of “Like Wall” became a rallying cry for the Sharks. Irbe explains: “Standing on the head?” Irbe thought when he’d leave the rink. “This was not the same language. In Latvian they would say, ‘You were like wall.’ Impenetrable to get through...The expression ‘standing on the head’ was similar to ‘like wall’! That’s how it started. It was a translation from Latvian.”

The Sharks made the playoffs as an eighth seed that year. They upset the Red Wings in seven games thanks to Jamie Baker’s goal, one of the greatest moments in franchise history. But that was an isolated moment of brilliance. Irbe backstopped the Sharks the whole way, and was brilliant in that series and in the seven-game loss to the Maple Leafs that ended the Sharks’ Cinderella run. The run nonetheless established the Sharks on the Bay Area scene, and Arturs Irbe was the primary reason for it.

In the summer of 1994, Archie took a well-deserved break. He went home to Latvia to relax at his Riga home. Ever diligent about staying in shape, the story goes he was doing sit-ups next to his sleeping dog one afternoon. In the process, he accidentally bumped into his pup, Rambo. The spooked animal freaked out, attacked, and Irbe sustained enormous damage to both of his hands trying to fend him off. Six months later, he still couldn’t grip his stick properly, and the lockout-shortened 94-95 season went comparatively poorly for Irbe, who posted an .895 save percentage but gained a reputation for giving up soft goals.

Sharks V Ducks
Irbe in action against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the early Nineties.

The 1995-96 season went dreadfully for Irbe, who lost his starting job to Wade Flaherty. The Sharks then traded for Chris Terreri, and the writing was on the wall for Irbe, who was a pending free agent. In the 1996 offseason, Irbe departed from San Jose and signed with the Stars. Dallas GM Bob Gainey praised the 29 year old’s arrival, saying that “We look at [Irbe] as an addition that can help tighten our goaltending situation and fill a void.” It was not to be. Irbe played one season in Dallas, starting 35 games, then left when Dallas signed Ed Belfour. After a stint with the Vancouver Canucks in 1997-98, where he split the workload with Garth Snow, Irbe signed with the Carolina Hurricanes.

Miraculously, Carolina revitalized Irbe’s career. In his first three seasons in Carolina, Arturs Irbe was an absolute workhorse. He started 62, 75, and then 77 games(!!!) for the ‘Canes, establishing himself as their undisputed number one starter and someone they could rely on. In 2001-02, the Hurricanes lightened his load a little, and Irbe started only 51 games. In the postseason, though, he bettered his run from 1993-94, and led the Hurricanes all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals. Irbe posted an utterly astounding .938 save percentage across that 18 game run, and played excellently in a Cup Final against a Detroit Red Wings team that was superior in every single way.

Hurricanes v Red Wings
Arturs Irbe dives to save a Tomas Holmstrom effort in Game 5 of the 2002 Cup Finals.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images/NHLI

It was one of the great goaltending runs in NHL postseason history, one that should be remembered with J.S. Giguere’s from the following year for its sheer audacity and skill. Exhausted from the postseason run, Irbe’s performance suffered in the 2002-03 season, and he was waived by the Hurricanes the following year. He signed with the Blue Jackets for the 04-05 season, which was wiped out by the lockout, and as a result never suited up for them. After two seasons in Europe, Arturs Irbe decided to call it a career.

In 2010, Arturs Irbe was the first Shark inducted into the Bay Area Sports Hall of Fame. It was a fitting honor for the Latvian legend. At the time, Irbe served as goalie coach for the Washington Capitals, helping to develop talent like Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, and he followed that gig with a stint as the Sabres goalie coach. His time in Buffalo led to a memorable moment where the 47-year old Irbe suited up as an emergency replacement for the injured Neuvirth, though he saw no time. Fittingly, that game was against the San Jose Sharks. Today he lives in Washington D.C., but says he still roots for the Sharks. He probably always will.

Share your Arturs Irbe memories in the comments and make suggestions for next week’s ex-Shark!