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|2 ноября 2003 года.
Former NHL goaltender Arturs Irbe is trying to make the best of his time in Johnstown - TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Вy Jim Rodenbush
He was selected to the All-Star team twice during his 12 NHL seasons, and two seasons ago, he nearly led the Carolina Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup title.
Now, he's Johnstown's most famous hockey player this side of the Hanson brothers.
A standing-room-only crowd packed the War Memorial Arena to see the Johnstown Chiefs debut of Arturs Irbe, the former NHL goaltender whose $2.7 million salary this year exceeds the operating budget for a typical ECHL team, but who is skating in the league because no NHL teams are willing to absorb his salary.
Irbe was assigned to Johnstown by the Hurricanes on Oct. 16, one day before the start of the Chiefs' season. Irbe joined his new team in Toledo, Ohio, in time for their season-opener before playing the next night in front of 4,011 home fans, just the second Johnstown sellout in four years.
Despite the attention his arrival received, Irbe said he would prefer to be looked at as just another hockey player.
"I hope and I believe that I am just one of the boys here," he said.
But Irbe couldn't be more out of place in the ECHL, a league equivalent to Class AA in baseball.
At age 36, Irbe is closer in age to Chiefs coach Toby O'Brien, 37, than he is to the team's next oldest player, defenseman Brent Bilodeau, who is 30. Most of his teammates are between the ages of 21-23.
And his NHL credentials -- including more wins (213) than any European-born goalie other than Dominik Hasek (292 through Friday) and the most victories in the Hurricanes' franchise history -- are unmatched in a league filled with up-and-coming players, not established veterans.
But unless another NHL team is willing to take a chance on the veteran, Irbe could find himself in the lower minor leagues for awhile because of a strained relationship with the Hurricanes, where he won 125 games in five seasons.
The issue is Irbe's contract, which the team has tried to unload since the middle of the 2002-03 season. The Hurricanes will pay Irbe $2.7 million this year and still owe him $2.5 million for the 2004-05 season.
Irbe refused to comment on his situation with the Hurricanes, which actually started last November when he lost the starting job to Kevin Weekes and demanded a trade. Irbe's play dropped off last season following the team's surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals. He struggled to a 7-24-2 record and a 3.18 goals-against average in a diminished role for the Hurricanes, as the team fell from the finals to last place in the Southeast Division.
Irbe was placed on waivers by the Hurricanes in February, and the team did attempt to trade him. He also spent time with the Lowell Lock Monsters, the team's American Hockey League affiliate.
The Hurricanes did not invite Irbe to training camp this season and offered him a buyout of his contract. Under the league's collective bargaining agreement, the Hurricanes could have bought out Irbe's contract for two-thirds of the money owed to him over the next two seasons, but they did not want to pay him for a 2004-05 season that could be wiped out because of potential labor troubles.
Instead, they offered him two-thirds of his salary for this year, about $1.8 million.
Irbe rejected the deal, and Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford was left to look for a roster spot for the goalie.
Irbe did not fit into the AHL picture this season because the Hurricanes now share their affiliate with the Calgary Flames, and each team sent its top goalie prospect to the Lock Monsters. So instead, Rutherford contacted Johnstown owner Neil Smith, the former GM of the New York Rangers, who agreed to take Irbe.
"Jimmy is a good friend of mine from way back," Smith said. "He called me and asked if I would be interested in having Irbe in Johnstown. I said, of course. It's a great way to give our fans another reason to come to the game, and it should help us in the standings."
"I'm not excited about having a player with an NHL contract in the minors," Rutherford told the Raleigh News & Observer. "But this does help sort out our goalie situation. It's not good to have players sitting around."
To his credit, Irbe has taken a positive approach to what could be a long stay in Johnstown. He said he treats playing in the ECHL no different than he did the NHL.
"It's going to be as good as a season as I make it for myself," he said. "I'm going to worry about what is in my control, and that's my game and that's my team. Right now, the team that I have been assigned to is the Johnstown Chiefs, so I'm going to try to help them win every single game."
His attitude has quickly won over his coach. O'Brien, a former professional goalie in his second season as coach of the Chiefs, said Irbe has not sought any special treatment.
"He is a player just like any other player," O'Brien said. "If you try to approach it differently, you'll be making a big mistake. He makes it very easy."
As to be expected, Irbe has helped the Chiefs to a fast start.
In his first start, he stopped 26 of 27 shots in a 4-1 victory over Long Beach. In all, Irbe is unbeaten in three starts with a 1.33 GAA and a .953 save percentage. He was named ECHL goalie of the week Tuesday.
The Chiefs have won four of their first six games (they were scheduled to play host to Reading on Saturday) and have outscored opponents 23-13.
"The team we have here is surprisingly skilled," Irbe said. "For me, it was a surprise to see the skill of these guys. That's maybe why the team is off to a great start."
Irbe is sharing playing time with Cory Campbell, 22, and David Currie, 21. Campbell played 12 games last season in the United Hockey League, the only professional experience the two players have.
As a result, Irbe has found himself in the role of unofficial coach.
"I definitely have a feeling that I'm here to help out these goalies," Irbe said. "I'm sure that's the case, and that's what I am trying to do. Also, I'm here to help some of the other players. If they want to get better and want to get into NHL, I can show them a few tricks. And if I can help them out, then my time here would not have been a waste."
O'Brien said playing with Irbe will be a good experience for Campbell and Currie, even if the two stand to lose some playing time.
"The bottom line is, (Irbe) leads by example," O'Brien said. "He's as hard of a working player at age 36 than any 18-year-old looking to get drafted. He's an incredibly hard working guy. So, hopefully, he teaches the young kids, and they learn that, if you want to be good, it'll take a lot of hard work."
Irbe can also teach the Chiefs about winning in the playoffs. His NHL career is highlighted by two unexpected postseason runs.
The first occurred in 1994, when Irbe helped the San Jose Sharks upset the Detroit Red Wings in the first round of the playoffs. The Sharks were in just their third year of existence and playing in their first playoff series, but became the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed.
The Sharks followed that up by nearly becoming the first No. 8 seed to advance to the conference finals. They led Toronto, 3-2, in the second round before losing in seven games.
Irbe saw his first full-time action during that season, his third in the NHL, going 30-28-16 with a 2.84 GAA in 74 games and playing in his first All-Star Game.
"It was like a Cinderella story," Irbe said. "There are a lot of firsts in your life, and that was definitely a first for myself and a lot of us. There was a new coach and a lot of new players just fresh in the NHL and a few veterans that had to prove something. It was unbelievable team chemistry that we built on that San Jose Sharks team."
Eight years later during the 2002 playoffs, Irbe posted a 1.67 GAA and six overtime wins in 18 playoff games, helping the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals, where they lost to the Red Wings in five games.
The Hurricanes were the No. 3 seed that year after winning the Southeast Division, but were still heavy underdogs to come out of the Eastern Conference. After winning only one playoff series dating back to the days of the Hartford Whalers, the Hurricanes reached the finals by beating New Jersey, Montreal and Toronto.
"That was different," Irbe said. "The finals, it's not like the second round of the playoffs. It's a totally different story. It was so unexpected and so well done and just mind-boggling to so many people. It's the most fun you can have."
And the Finals proved extra-special to Irbe because he faced off against Hasek in the first-ever Finals matchup of European-born goalies.
"It was special, and obviously, he's the master," Irbe said. "I've always been following his footsteps and have always been behind him, so maybe that was suiting that he got the Cup."
But Irbe would like a chance at his own championship before his playing career is over. For now, he'll have to settle for the Kelly Cup, which is the ECHL championship.
"I definitely know I have it in me," Irbe said. "I could have a shot at it. It just a matter right now of the things that are out of my control, so for now, I try not to think about it."
Hail to these Chiefs
Here is a look at the five former Johnstown Chiefs who are currently playing in the NHL:
Player - Team - Pos. - Years with Johnstown
Garrett Burnett - Anaheim - LW - 1997-98
Brett McLean - Chicago - C - 1999-2000
Dany Sabourin - Calgary - G - 2000-02
Jody Shelley - Columbus - LW - 1998-00
Derrick Walser - Columbus - D - 1998-00
Arturs Irbe file
Height/weight: 5-foot-8, 190 pounds
Years in the NHL: 12
Teams: San Jose Sharks, 1991-96; Dallas Stars, 1996-97; Vancouver Canucks, 1997-98; Carolina Hurricanes, 1998-2003
Career marks: 213-234-78 record, 2.84 GAA
Miscellaneous: Has played in two NHL All-Star Games (1994, 1999). ... Was originally drafted by the Minnesota North Stars (196th overall) in the 11th round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft. ... Played for his home country Latvia in the 2002 Winter Olympics.