Irbe Ready for New Challenge
Arturs Irbe was one of the first European goalies to land a starting job in the NHL. Now it's his job to ensure two of the Caps' prospects do the same.
Although Irbe will oversee all of the organization's goalies, including veteran Jose Theodore, his biggest responsibility will be polishing touted youngsters Semyon Varlamov, a Russian, and Michal Neuvirth, a Czech, into top NHLers.
At times last season, Varlamov's limited English made communication with the coaching staff difficult. That, however, will no longer be a problem since Irbe speaks English, Russian and some German.
"I should be able to communicate with him in any language, whichever he prefers," said Irbe, a native of Latvia. "I hope it will be an asset to make it easier, the transition [to the NHL]."
GM George McPhee added: "The fact that he speaks different languages made us really think he would be a good fit for us. That helps a lot. There are some nuances to goaltenders that are difficult explain or decipher if there's a language barrier."
Irbe, a small yet feisty goalie who led the 'Canes to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 and spent a total of 13 seasons in the NHL with four teams, came to the Caps highly recommended by Dave Prior, the man he's replacing.
Prior, who had been the Caps' longest tenured coach, stepped down after 12 seasons to spend more time with his wife. Prior, who was Olie Kolzig's coach when he won the Vezina Trophy in 2000, recommended the acquisition of Cristobal Huet at the 2008 trade deadline as well as the selection of both Varlamov and Neuvirth in 2006 draft.
"He was away from home 230 nights last year, not counting the day trips," McPhee said of Prior. "He couldn't do it anymore and said he owed his wife a better life, which you have to admire him for that."
Prior coached Irbe when the two were in San Jose during the 1990s and he also played with Caps assistant coach Dean Evason with the Sharks. After Prior informed the team that he intended to resign, he was asked to help in the search for his successor. One of his recommendations was Irbe.
"Dave basically did the interviewing for us, about what the job would entail and also [asked], 'How are you going to teach?' and 'Are you going to allow them to play the way that got them here?'" McPhee said. "He gave all the right answers."
Irbe's decision to come to Washington also brings him closer to family. He has a 12-year-old son in Raleigh, and being on this side of the Atlantic will allow Irbe to spend more time with him.
Irbe has no NHL coaching experience, but he spent last season coaching the goalies with his hometown KHL club, Riga Dynamo. He has also coached Latvia's national team goalies.
"I have a quite of a bit of goaltending experience behind my back, as a goaltender and to some extent limited coaching experience," Irbe said. "But I take it as a bonus that I have had several goaltending coaches from different schools -- from Europe, from North America, guys who have played the game, guys who have not played the game at a high level, guys who have been distinctly goaltending coaches, guys who have been assistant coaches but former goalies and taking this part of the job into their hands. There was a lot to learn and lots to observe and analyze. I hope all of these things I have received from all of these guys I can apply to my job."
Whew. And you thought "Gabby" could talk.
"I have been young guy in league, I have been old guy in league -- obviously that's just natural course, how the things work," Irbe continued. "I have been up-and-down guy, which nobody wants to experience, but along the road you say those bumps actually made you richer and have given you a lot of experience. I have seen IHL at the beginning, AHL, I have seen East Coast league. I have seen Olympics, world championships. So I know the background from where Semyon is coming [and] in many ways, I know his language, I know the history behind his country, I know the history behind Neuvirth's country."
Irbe said he views his new job as one of support.
"It's a great situation when you have young guys who are skilled and have great potential," Irbe said. "They have made it here for a reason. They have made it up to this point because they are good. They know what they are doing. They don't need to be changed, don't have to be interfered [with]. It's more about supporting them and helping them just to read the game and see the things you are incapable of seeing when you are in the net. To see yourself from the outside with a different view. It could be camera, but it's even better if someone who is watching you off to the side and can ask you questions that no one else can ask, like, 'Why did you move this way?' or 'What were you thinking?'"
Irbe will begin asking the Caps' goalies questions like those next month -- in English and Russian.
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