It’s tough not to think of Arturs Irbe without smiling. He was just so easy to root for, a short, stocky goaltender who never changed his equipment and regularly repaired his tattered pads himself. He was unorthodox at best and ineffective at worst in his puckhandling. He made his living constantly surprising everyone on underdog teams that pulled off stunning upsets.
As a rookie for Dynamo Riga in his native Latvia in the late 1980s, he helped his squad make a surprise run to the Soviet League final. In the 1994 NHL playoffs, Irbe’s San Jose Sharks, a true laughingstock in their first couple NHL seasons, shocked a powerhouse Detroit squad in the first round. He posted a .938 save percentage in the 2002 playoffs to help the Carolina Hurricanes make an improbable run to the Stanley Cup final.
Irbe never finished better than fifth in Vezina Trophy voting and played in just two All-Star Games, but he squeezed every ounce of talent out of himself to build a 13-season NHL career with 218 victories. He left more net to shoot at than almost every other modern-day goalie, not only because he was just 5-foot-8 but also because his equipment covered so little of him compared to his Michelin Man counterparts.
Irbe loved his padding broken in and closely contoured to his frame. He reused not just his leg pads, but also his chest and shoulder pads for more than a decade. They didn’t cover his whole body, so he took a beating. “There was bruising and black marks but not broken bones,” he said. “But rebounds were controlled, and I knew exactly where the puck was going. I had no other way of competing with those big, strong guys coming up. You had to give in order to gain. And I loved my old equipment. I just loved it.”
Born: Feb. 2, 1967, Riga, Lat.
NHL Career: 1991-2004
Teams: SJ, Dal, Van, Car
Stats: 218-236-79, 2.83 GAA, .899 SP, 33 SO
DID YOU KNOW?
In the summer of 1994, Irbe’s dog, Rambo, attacked him, leaving him with a broken finger and severed artery in his left hand. His “ugly” stickhandling style was actually Irbe coping with the major nerve and tendon damage.