In the brief history of the Champions League, no Italian team had ever made the round of 16…until now.
The Bolzano Foxes punched their ticket by coming out of their pool alongside Sweden’s Skelleftea, meaning IFK Helsinki from Finland was done. The Foxes are led by a group of former NHLers, including Michael Blunden, Daniel Catenacci and Andrew Crescenzi. The star in net is 2006 Calgary Flames first-rounder Leland Irving, who has found a prime landing spot for himself and his young family. “Bolzano has been awesome,” Irving said. “It’s a beautiful area right by the mountains with nice, warm weather, vineyards and apple orchards. And the food is hard to beat.”
Irving got his first taste of Europe back in 2013-14 with Jokerit in Finland. The next year, he joined Salavat Yulaev Ufa in the KHL, a more remote spot than cosmopolitan Helsinki (yet try the vak balish!) but still good competition. Another stint in Finland with KooKoo was bookended by AHL gigs in Iowa and San Diego, which is where Pat Curcio caught up with the netminder.
Curcio is the former coach and assistant GM of Bolzano, and still works with the team as a consultant and recruiter (his new day job is working for Optima World Sports, a player agency that specializes in European leagues).
After helping put together a championship team in Bolzano last season, Curcio needed 10 new players, as the small-market Foxes lost talent to teams with deeper pockets. He remembered Irving from the goalie’s early pro days with the ECHL Victoria Salmon Kings when Curcio was an assistant with the Utah Grizzlies. “He was outstanding but wasn’t typical for an NHL goalie because of his (smaller) size,” Curcio said. “But I loved his skill and his ability.”
Irving went to Bolzano and has been a standout for the squad, helping them achieve unprecedented success in the Champions League while also posting an impressive .941 save percentage and 1.88 goals-against average locally.
The Foxes actually play in the Austrian League, also known as the EBEL. That circuit features teams from five countries, including Austrian heavy hitters Red Bull Salzburg and the Vienna Capitals. Bolzano is located in northern Italy but many residents speak German. Irving brought along his wife, Ashley, and three young daughters – Halle, Brooklyn and Brynn – so location was important. “That was part of the process,” Irving said. “It seemed like a fun place to come, and it has exceeded expectations. My kids are learning German in school. They’ll be translating for us eventually.”
The EBEL has a favorable travel schedule, as well. Curcio notes the longest bus ride is six hours (Vienna), but many other spots are three hours or less. That means Irving is never away from home for more than a day or two. The team also gives the 30-year-old and many of his other former NHL teammates a chance to build their games and perhaps get another crack in North America. “You never let the dream die,” Curcio said. “It’s an opportunity to get better, an opportunity to get a new outlook on the game. The ice time is different and there’s more time for practice and development. Leland has played almost every game.”
Curcio cites Derek Ryan as an example of a player who went to the EBEL for a few years (with Hungary’s Fehervar and Austria’s Villacher) before a season in Sweden and then to the Carolina Hurricanes organization, where he became a contributor before signing a multi-year deal with Calgary.
Calgary is where Irving began his NHL career. He played 13 games with the Flames over two seasons before embarking on his European adventure. At six-foot and 177 pounds, Irving didn’t have the build for the new game, though he doesn’t take his NHL experience for granted. “It felt like it went by in the blink of an eye, but it was something I’ll never forget,” Irving said. “I played well, but it wasn’t what I was capable of. But I have no regrets.”
Now his aim is to help the Foxes win for their raucous fans. And in a league where playing styles vary greatly from defense-first to run-and-gun, Irving knows he has to be ready every night.
This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.