Resisting the urge to hitch up his faded Wranglers by the belt-loops, warble a tune made famous by the Sons of the Pioneers and perhaps take aim at an imaginary spittoon, Miikka Kiprusoff, channeling his Finnish John Wayne, welcomed Leland Irving back to the seat beside him in a highly distinctive Cowtown manner.
Irving cleared the holster quicker than Henrik (The Calgary Tower) Karlsson.
That’s why he’s the one left standing in this High Noon-like showdown for the back-up goaltending spot on the Calgary Flames.
"It’s awesome,’’ said the 24-year-old from Barrhead, just northwest of Edmonton. "No better feeling. It’s taken a lot of hard work and a few obstacles along the way, but I couldn’t be happier. "Obviously you have your doubts every once in a while, especially when things aren’t going right. But I just stuck to the process. I knew what I was capable of. I was just focused on getting back to myself, playing my game, and I really feel I’ve done that lately.
"I know the contract situation, and the way the start of my season was going, I knew I had to do something special to really prove I deserve to be here.’’
Out of the scorched earth of a wasted half-season in Abbotsford, one in which the one-time heir apparent to the throne had been shunted to third-string status, Leland Irving earned a reprieve to his suddenly-stalled pro career with a tidy, confident performance here in a dizzyingly-brief, highly-unorthodox mini-camp.
Both men had been placed on waivers Thursday, and cleared. Karlsson has been designated for assignment but remains here for now.
"The management, the coaching staff, we were sitting on the decision,’’ admitted Flames’ head coach Bob Hartley on Friday. "We feel like Leland Irving won the backup position. We felt like he was better. It’s not fun. It’s not a fun situation. But this is a very competitive business. You have to make the right decisions and, more importantly, the most honest decision. "That’s what we feel we’ve done."
Irving shrugged when asked how he could only recently be third-tier in the American Hockey League - behind Danny Taylor and Barry Brust - and now elevated to No. 2 in the big show.
"I can’t explain it. It’s just a different speed. A little scrambly down there. I found I had too much time to think and maybe just was over-aggressive at times. I feel a little more comfortable here even though it is faster. I think being here is more suited to my game. "You have less time, but there’s also less time to over-think things.’’
While playing time was virtually non-existent in the minors, he isn’t anticipating a back-breaking workload here, either. But the bench is better than any press box. So obviously he has no problem caddying, playing Angelo Argea to Kiprusoff’s Jack Nicklaus.
"There’s rumors that he’s ready to play 48 (games),’’ mused Irving. "I know he’s capable of it. I’m gonna be ready every night. Take that approach. Every practice is going to be like a game for me. That’s how I have to approach this. "Being similar in size, I can learn a lot from him. Not a big goalie himself, Kipper’s very efficient, has great reflexes and very calm in the net. I can’t catch myself sleeping in practice, watching him the whole time. I came here and took every day very seriously. I didn’t want to waste a day. I think the little bump in the road in Abbotsford is a good thing for me.’’
Clearly, after signing a one-year, $750,000 deal, the situation out west under coach Troy Ward had become personally untenable. But when the lockout ended and this opportunity to pull himself out from under that cloud presented itself, Iriving wasn’t thinking of the worst-case scenario, of perhaps losing the duel.
"I don’t know what my options would’ve been. But we would’ve worked something out. But obviously I’m very happy to be here and be a part of this organization. I mean, I’ve had lots of highlights. Lots of great times. I’ve got a beautiful baby girl at home. Great family. Last season was a great season, too, but just a little stumble in the road to start this season. Nothing I expected but I’m just happy to be here, now.’’
In the final analysis, Irving toppled the Tower on Thursday, during last-gasp auditions.
"That last scrimmage set-up,’’ said goaltending coach Clint Malrchuk. "That’s what probably made the difference. (Irving) excelled. He took the spot there.
"They were very close. In a camp like this it’s so hard because there’s no exhibition games, you’re in practices all the the time and they’re both in there taking 100 shots. It’s a difficult situation for both of them. But Leland was good when he had to be. A week before camp, I knew he was coming here and I wanted him to arrive in a good frame of mind because of all the negative stuff that’s been happening to him this year. So I told him ‘As quickly as things can go bad in this game, in pro sports, they can turn good.` I know. I’ve been there. So it’s kind of cool to see that happen for him.’’
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