I thought I was gonna be better than I am.
Arturs Irbe came into my life in a deeply mediated way. In the aftermath of Patrick Roy's Statue of Liberty play, a monumental gaffe in which he attempted to showboat after making a save, accidentally allowing a goal instead and then absolutely collapsing the next game, I was in the mood for a lower-stakes, more alienated relationship with hockey, and three things stood ready to satisfy me:
- the Playoff Fling, in which a sports fan gets excited about a strange team for the duration of their run
- ESPN's reliable human-interest-narrative machine
- video games
In 2002, the Carolina Hurricanes (an actual NHL team, yes) made a difficult-to-explain run to the Cup Finals. I enjoyed this run well enough without thinking or feeling too hard about it, at least until they ran up against the nemesis Red Wings in the final round, and proceeded to absorb a world-class thumping. My own trajectory around then was similar: I made a stirring run out of college before running up against the iron cage of a job. Deciding/desperate to mitigate my depression, I bought a TV and a Nintendo. (The irony of attempting to reduce depression by means of video games would remain lost on me until roughly 2009.) Among the first games I bought was an NHL game; its default teams, if you just turned it on, were the previous year's Cup finalists: Hurricanes/Wings. Pick one, the computer plays the other, so I played the Hurricanes. A lot. Somewhere in there, I bought a magazine to read at work, and got to read the ballad of the Canes' goalies: Arturs "Archie" Irbe and Kevin Weekes. In retrospect, the most interesting thing about the piece is how relentless Eric Adelson's racial dogwhistling is—Irbe is white, small, thrifty, hard-working, proud; Weekes is black, large, intimidating, talented, vain—but at the time, the sentimentality worked for me:
In his locker, Arturs Irbe has a red bag filled with scissors, tape, thread, needles and a lighter. This is Archie's tool kit. He takes it wherever he goes. On team flights, he'll restitch his trapper. In hotel rooms, he'll fix a broken strap. At home, he'll re-cover his pads. On the bench, during games when he's not playing, he'll retape his stick. Irbe used the same ratty pads for his entire NHL career until they became heavy as logs from all the triage. The typical NHL goaltender costs his team $10,000 per season in equipment. Arturs Irbe has never dented the Canes' annual budget by more than $500.
Archie's tool kit is an emblem for a way of life. He is the youngest son of an engineer and a seamstress who raised him in impoverished Latvia. Arturs started playing hockey at age 9 with a broken shaft nailed to a broken blade. He could hardly skate after severely injuring both his ankles in a game when he was 13. (He still tapes them heavily and walks pigeon-toed.) "The poor kid has no chance," Arturs once overheard his mother saying. But Arturs was so good at blocking shots, his team put him in goal. "Somehow," Irbe recalls in near-perfect English, "the coach notices the kid who never gives up." Arturs outworked his competition, and soon the Soviets were asking about the small goalie with the worn-out equipment. "You can tell," Archie says, smiling, "how I became how I am."
Arturs Irbe had a DIY ethos I both share and struggle with:
An aging rocker dude of the DIY persuasion once had a long, frustrating couple of weeks. His enjoyment of doing hobbies had palled somewhat. In part because DIY practices can infect all processes/products with what Kipling termed the "rather more-or-less" and what everybody else calls the "half-assed". In part because DIY techniques often focus on the accessible or attainable at the expense of the (task-) appropriate and specialized.
Anyway, in his badly-patched skinny jeans the aging rocker dude making nachos in his filthy ruin of a kitchen spat to no-one (not even the chair): I'm DONE using shoddy shit, I'm done half-assing it, I'm done fucking around and doing things badly just for the sake of doing them myself. Life's too short. Here on out, I'm using good things, I'm sticking to what I'm good at, & I'm insisting on high quality in myself, my activities, and my surroundings.
As the years went on, Irbe revealed himself to be a man of character, quitting a job he felt had become beneath him:
Arturs Irbe: It’s very interesting and entertaining to be a goaltending coach, but it’s a thing of the past for me. Two years of that was enough for me, and I don’t see myself in that role anymore — though I have offers, including long-term ones. I want to grow professionally, I want to move on, I want to earn more.
Kristaps Drikis: What kind of promotion did you expect? Did you want to become a head coach?
Arturs Irbe: Absolutely not. I asked George McPhee if I can get some kind of promotion in the future, maybe one day become an assistant coach to increase my responsibilities, and he replied that the goalie coach is the most stable job. Assistants and managers come and go, goalie coaches stay for years or even decades. They thought that I would work with the Caps’ goalies for many years to come and I would be satisfied with that. But I didn’t think so. I want to set some new goals for myself.
But he isn't—wasn't—just a symbol of interesting and admirable traits, he was also a player of legitimate and enduring achievement. In 1993-4, he established the league's record for most minutes played in a season. He led the league in appearances in 1993-4, 1999-2000, and 2000-1. He was an All-Star in 1993-4 and 1998-9. Internationally, he was the Soviet league's rookie of the year in 1987-8, and is in the International Ice Hockey Federation's Hall of Fame. These achievements and stories point to important lessons: Show Up. Be Prepared. Fix Your Shit. Stick with It. Don't Quit.
It's true that these are prosaic, boosterish slogans/lessons. It's one of the limitations of sports that what it has to teach is so often so shallow and cheery; but when the stakes are so low, the wisdom payloads can only be so heavy.
But there is something more there, something to be gained by studying the path of a journeyman—a proud one, who insisted on being treated as equal to anybody, as a figure with dignity that wouldn't be negotiated away or compromised on. I think a lot about Arturs Irbe. About working doggedly. About demanding to be treated with respect. About showing up for what's likely to be a loss, and what's sure to be a lot of work. About limitation and what it's like when you realize who you really are, and just how far you can go.
In the words of another lifer, another one who never quit,
And I'll tell you something else. I'm old enough now . . . I thought, back 30 years ago when I started—well, I didn't start 30 years ago, but that's when The Gospel Singer came out, 30 years ago this year—and I thought I was gonna be better than I am. I mean, I'm all right, and I'm not whining, but I thought I was going to be better than I am.
Arturs Irbe has a posse, maybe as small and limited as our lives, as our possibilities. But in the teeth of those brutal lacks, it's not a superstar we should look to, it's just a guy. We can set new goals, we can spit in the faces of those who would disdain or restrain us, we can carry on.