Irving’s summer school could pay off in his development
Flames goalie practised with and learned from NHL stars in the Okanagan
Little did the Calgary Flames goaltending prospect realize at the time the other major benefit to living in area populated by so many big-time hockey stars.
Still trying to establish himself as a full-time NHLer, Irving started skating in Kelowna with the likes of Jarome Iginla, Shea Weber, Josh Gorges, and Cody Franson — just to name a few.
He split the goaltending duties with Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens and James Reimer of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It’s unreal,” Irving said, with a broad grin after a controlled scrimmage at Abbotsford Heat training camp. “I don’t know if there’s a better group out there to skate with.”
The group is so outstanding, Irving gladly drove the hour in from Vernon just to face some of the most lethal shooters in the game.
Weber, for example, routinely terrifies goalies with his cannon from the point that reaches in excess of 170km/hr.
“He’s pretty good about it,” Irving said. “He’s got a pretty heavy shot, but he didn’t ring any by my ears.
“I was thankful for that.”
Irving, 24, is also thankful for the chance to play actual games in spite of the NHL work stoppage that threatens to kill the entire season.
He initially feared a prolonged period of inactivity when the owners officially locked out the players on Sept. 15.
“We were already looking into Europe and trying to find something,” he said. “But there just wasn’t that much out there.
“Only guys like Pekka Rinne, Henrik Lundqvist and Ilya Bryzgalov have found jobs in Europe, so I was kind of fishing.
“And there was nothing for me.”
Nothing until word trickled out that anyone who suited up for an AHL team in the 2011/12 Calder Cup playoffs is eligible (without clearing waivers) until the NHL labour dispute is resolved.
Without hesitation, Irving promptly signed a professional tryout agreement with the Heat that is expected to turn into an AHL deal should the lockout drag on and on.
“It’s important for Leland to be that go-to guy this year,” said Flames general manager Jay Feaster. “And to win hockey games.”
That second point cannot be understated. A first-round (26th overall) pick of the Flames in 2006, Irving took a massive step last winter by knocking Henrik Karlsson out of the No. 2 spot in Calgary behind Miikka Kiprusoff.
Still, Irving’s record of 1-3-3 leaves something to be desired. Over the summer, Feaster made it perfectly clear he needs a backup who can give the team victories when Kiprusoff takes a rare night off.
Call it a work in progress from an organizational point of view.
“Leland is not yet an established NHL player,” Feaster said. “I’m confident that when camp comes around in Calgary — if we had camp on time — I think Henrik Karlsson was wanting to get the backup job back.
“So I think it would have been a really good competition between those two guys.”
Compounding matters is the fact a mentally-exhausted Irving lost the starting job in Abbotsford during the Calder Cup playoffs to AHL journeyman Danny Taylor.
“It was tough,” Irving said. “So I want to have a bounce-back and get started on a high note here.”
Not one to make excuses, Irving refuses to blame a major life change in April — the birth of his daughter Halle — for the untimely dip in performance.
But head coach Troy Ward says it’s understandable for any new parent to experience growing pains in the early-going.
“You don’t know what to expect going in,” Irving nodded. “I got a bit of a shock. We were busy, and there were a lot of nights where you don’t get a whole lot of sleep.
“We just had to learn Halle and her habits, and what she needs.”
Mission accomplished on that front.
“She’s starting to crawl,” he said. She’s getting around — still kind of belly-dragging around. But she’s a pretty happy baby.
“We’re pretty lucky.”
Next up for Halle’s daddy: proving he’s the man to take the starting job in Abbotsford, followed by a move up to Calgary whenever peace returns to the NHL.
At Heat camp, the suits from Calgary keep watchful eye on each and every practice.
“I’m cognizant they’re up there,” Irving said. “I notice them.
“They’re kind of hard to miss.”
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