Snowed-in Buffalo coach wears Latvian-flag ribbon for holiday win

Take note – story published 9 years ago

National Hockey League (NHL) Buffalo Sabres head coach Ted Nolan sent sincere regards to Latvia on its national independence holiday, taking a win against the hapless San Jose Sharks in snowbound hometown Buffalo. Latvian goalie-coach Arturs Irbe was even suited up as a reserve player for the game on this particularly odd circumstance.

While Buffalo got buried under a four-foot blizzard, the game went on inside the First Niagara Center, with barely a third of the home crowd showing up for their purchased tickets. Still, the win was celebrated raucously. The "locally inept" Sharks have historically won only a single game against their "pesky" competitors, the Sabres, who now claim their 14th against their “mystified” rivals from balmier climes, the city which will coincidentally be hosting next-year’s North-American west-coast Latvian song-festival in September 2015.

When Sabres goalie Michal Neuvirth didn't return for the start of the second frame, apparently injured on a prior play, Nolan made the unusual move of formally putting into the game goalie coach Arturs Irbe, who quickly signed to an unusual tryout contract making him eligible to play. However, Irbe didn’t actually get any active time on the ice.

“We started scrambling, looking for options and it’s a snow day, No. 1. And No. 2, it’s Independence Day for Latvia, for our tiny country today,” Irbe said after the game. “Ted said, “Arch, why don’t you be our security net just in case?’

“I said, ‘Ted, I haven’t donned a uniform in seven years.’

“He said, ‘It doesn’t matter. Now you will.’

Irbe, one of Latvia’s world-renowned sports starts as a former NHL goalie, suited up in time for the third period for a game which could very well just have been cancelled altogether. Ticket-holders who wisely opted to stay home in the deadly weather which claimed at least four lives will be refunded or honored at other games.

''It's a snow day,'' Irbe said with a laugh, noting he hasn't played professionally in seven years. ''I obviously didn't want Jhonny (reliever Jhonas Enroth) to get hurt or something bad to happen. But if I would go in, I would have fun.'' reported AP sportswriter John Wawrow.

The widely-admired Native-American Nolan, who coached Latvia’s national hockey team in the world championships, took a flag-parsed ribbon on the occasion of the republic’s 96th independence declaration anniversary from LTV's Sporta Studija team. He promised to wear it in honor of the date for the game against the Sharks in honor of his Latvian friends "who treated me like one of their own."

Meanwhile, the on the eve of the snowbound game against the Sharks, Latvian player Zemgus Girgensons had pondered the team’s current last-place showing, with only four wins to its credit so far in the season, reported Latvian Television's sports news team.

Girgensons placed no blame whatsoever on the head coach, saying “there hasn’t been a level of mastery shown, sometimes it seems we’ve just given up, gotten lazy,” he suggested the players’ performance hadn’t been up to par.

However assistant coach and former NHL star-goalie Arturs Irbe brushed off the early-season showing and the win against the Sharks seems to have proved his case for now.

“I went about my business, started second period and thought I’m just going to be on standby.”

Irbe ended up signing a professional try-out contract, strapped on a pair of Enroth’s pads, put on a glove and blocker that used to belong to Ryan Miller and was given a helmet from parts unknown.

By the end of the second intermission, he was ready to go before the approximately 6,200 fans that braved the inclement weather to attend.

“It’s not the comfortable equipment I’m used to,” he said. “But I had to preserve, put it on. It took a while. Much longer than it usually takes – it’s been seven years. And that was it. By the start of the third period, I was, just in case ready. It was a fun feeling.”

Irbe played his last NHL game on April 4, 2004 when he was with the Carolina Hurricanes. The two-time NHL All-Star, who played 568 career games and helped lead Carolina to the Stanley Cup Final in 2002, was certainly ready mentally if called upon.

“If I would go in, I would have fun, I know that. Once a goalie, always a goalie,” he said.

“I was thinking about what I would do, how I would approach it if I would have to go in, sure. Visualizing, that’s part of the game. I never thought I would don equipment and now I’m starting to have some pull. You know what they say, be careful what you wish for, you might get it.”

Sabres forward Zemgus Girgensons has had the privilege of being coached by Irbe both with Buffalo and on the Latvian national team. He was asked to ponder a situation in which a healthy Enroth skated off near the end of the game to allow Irbe get into the game.

“That would be awesome. Something I would never have thought about, but it’s funny that he got the PTO today,” he said.



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