(This article was originally published on Apr. 9, 2021)
Matt Irwin’s hockey journey following his tenure with the Nanaimo Clippers took him literally across North America.
After a stellar three-year run in the BCHL, Irwin committed to the UMass Minutemen of the NCAA where he spent two seasons before turning pro with the San Jose Sharks. He admitted the recruiting process started well before his final junior season, with UMass front and centre the entire time.
“They were the first school to recruit me and then as my time in the BCHL wore on more and more schools started to look at me. I flew down to see the UMass campus to meet the coaches and I really loved it. For me, throughout my entire hockey career, I never really looked too far ahead and I never put too much pressure on myself to make the NHL. (I) went year by year and one step at a time.”
“UMass was the place for me. I was being recruited by a few well-known schools at the time like the Denver’s (of the world) and for me, it was a comfort with the coaches and (the chance) to step in and play right away,” explained Irwin.
“I wasn’t drafted, (and) I decided to stay back as a 20-year-old in Nanaimo to take on a leadership role and develop my game that way. I looked at UMass’s depth chart and saw an opportunity. If you commit to a school where there are a bunch of first-round NHL picks, chances are they are going to play,”
It turned out to be a perfect marriage between the Minutemen and Irwin as he compiled seven goals and 11 assists in 31 games during his freshman year. It was there that Irwin had the chance to play with current Philadelphia Flyers defenceman Justin Braun.
“The whole US college experience is something you hope any athlete can be able to experience because Monday through Friday you are grinding away with the student life, and then once you arrive at the Mullen Centre, the arena would be packed. You have fellow students cheering you on, so it’s a real unique experience when you see everyone your age and they are all in it together because that’s who they support.”
Irwin took another step up the ladder in his sophomore season, posting 24 points in 36 games and locked up a contract with the San Jose Sharks.
Swimming with the Sharks
Like most collegiate signings, Irwin spent the first two and a half seasons honing his craft in the American Hockey League with the Worcester Sharks. The Victoria, BC native spent little time adjusting to life as a pro, compiling 73 points in 143 regular-season games, making his mark within the organization.
“My first year was great. It didn’t start out that way as I was a healthy scratch the first few games but I worked hard and leaned on the guys (who) had experience and had been there before. I worked with Ray Sommer, who was my coach, and I also had development coaches in Bryan Marchment and Mike Ricci. Having those resources at your fingertips to pick brains and (get) tips to make your life easier at that level was comforting and made me play better.”
In 2012-13, Irwin’s childhood dream of making the NHL came true, spending 38 games with San Jose He collected six goals and six assists while also appearing in 11 playoff games.
“It was weird because my first year in San Jose was the lockout year so I was down in Worcester on a two-way contract and then I got called up. I remember my first practice and my assistant coach Jay Woodcroft said my defense partner was Dan Boyle. (Boyle) was awesome to me because he was a similar type of guy who went undrafted and worked his way to the NHL to have an amazing career. He made my life a lot easier.”
“It was a good blend of guys, we had a good team that year, and we ended up losing in seven games to LA but there were a lot of pinch me moments playing in my first game, scoring my first goal. I remember playing in the first round of the playoffs in Vancouver against the Canucks. You know how much the fans are into the game and then to sweep (the Canucks) was something special.”
The Sharks went 25-16-7 that season before bowing out to the Kings in seven games. Irwin spent two more seasons with the Sharks from 2013-15, collecting 38 points in 115 regular-season games.
Struggles in Boston, success in Music City
In free agency, Irwin inked a deal with the Boston Bruins to return to Massachusetts – a place where he enjoyed plenty of success in the NCAA and AHL levels. However, the homecoming was less than pleasant, playing just two games with the Bruins before spending the remainder of the season in Providence.
“That didn’t go well at all. I felt comfortable signing there and was excited to head back to the East Coast but I look back on that year and view it as a turning point in the sense of where my mindset was about hockey in regards to how quickly it can get taken away from you. There are always guys coming up looking to take your job and it’s a cut-throat business.”
“It was nice when that season ended where I could park it and move on.”
As luck would have it, Irwin got a shot at redemption with the Nashville Predators during the 2016-17 season.
In 74 games, Irwin managed 14 points and was on a Predators team that included Viktor Arvidsson, James Neal, Roman Josi, and Pekka Rinne – coming within an eyelash of defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Final.
“The day David Poile called me and asked if I was ready to move on, those are the words I needed to hear and took all of those learning lessons. I started down in Milwaukee and got my confidence back and got my chance with the Preds at the expense of an injury.”
Irwin recalls the run to the Final pretty incredible given they were the 16th seed in the entire NHL as they prepared to face the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. “Nobody really gave us a chance in that series and we ended up sweeping (Chicago) and everything fell into place from there. To this day, (that run) will end up being my greatest hockey memory.”
“You don’t realize what it takes to get to play for the Stanley Cup. The stress, travel, the injuries, and the support of the whole city were incredible. Going into May and June in Nashville, there are bachelor and bachelorette parties everywhere. I remember trying to take an afternoon nap and I couldn’t sleep because there was country music blaring everywhere and that atmosphere just seeped into Bridgestone Arena. They really pushed us. It was a remarkable run that finished two wins shy of the Cup,” added Irwin.
The legend of the catfish
If you have ever watched a Predators game, the fanbase has become well-known for throwing a catfish on the ice before every game, similar to what was done in Detroit when an octopus was tossed on the ice only to get flailed around by one of the arena staff.
“You don’t think of the deep south as a hockey hotbed but they certainly turned into that in Nashville. Before the anthem, after the anthem, random parts during the game. I would hear fans would be taping (catfish) to their legs to get into the rink. Can you imagine how much that stinks? They would throw it onto the ice after the anthem and it would smell horrible, the ice crew would pick it up and swing it around their head.”
“We had Carrie Underwood, Dierks Bentley, and Keith Urban also singing the national anthem, and then we had Tennessee Titans players shotgunning beers in the crowd through the catfish’s mouth – just getting the fans going. It was a remarkable journey and I can only imagine what it would have been like to win there.”
Irwin spent nearly four seasons in Nashville before getting dealt to Anaheim at last year’s trade deadline. In nine games with the Ducks, Irwin compiled one assist while seeing a lot of ice time on a rebuilding hockey team. In November 2019, Irwin became the first player inducted into the Clippers Wall of Honour.
“When I got (to the Ducks) I was playing 22, 23, and even sometimes 27 minutes a night and that is all that I had asked for when I requested a trade from Nashville after the coaching change. I wasn’t expecting to play that much, but I wasn’t going to say no either and I wanted to prove myself for another contract.”
Irwin signed a one-year pact with the Buffalo Sabres during the offseason and has played about half of the team’s games this season.