ALUMNI SHINE AT PREDS CAMP
Date: Jun 28, 2019
With the 2018 Elite Edge Hockey Showcase around the corner, we are starting a series of stories to help our players learn about what is needed to make the next steps in their hockey journey. The most recent of these features is Matt Irwin - a Brentwood Bay, BC product. He began his career at a 17-year-old in the BC Hockey League. Turned that into a college opportunity at UMass and now into a full-time NHL career with the Nashville Predators. Here is his story:
I was faced with a nearly impossible task one day in juniors.
It was my first full season in Nanaimo of the BCHL and I was lighting it up. And by lighting it up, I think I put up a solid three goals and six assists in 56 games. I’ll always remember that. Not the best first impression.
One day during that season, my coach at the time, Bill Bestwick, dumped a whole bucket of pucks out at the blue line, put the goalie in the net and told me to shoot. There was no screen, no tips, nobody in front, just me and the goalie from the blue line and I had to shoot them until I scored a goal.
That wasn’t going to happen from there with nobody in front.
I ended up shooting the whole bucket of pucks and I guess that was his way to let me know I had to shoot more. It was a workout, but whatever the method behind the madness, it seemed to work for me.
Perhaps you’re a young hockey player trying to find your way at the moment. Maybe you’ve had a bucket of pucks dumped at your feet, too. If that happens, embrace it. I was never the fastest or the flashiest, but I knew I possessed the will to attain my dream one day.
You’ve probably heard people say will beats skill. It’s such a cliché, but would they say it if it wasn’t true?
That next season in juniors, I put up 22 goals and 49 points as a defenseman, and 53 points the season after that. Those numbers got me more attention from schools in the NCAA, and I eventually ended up committing to UMass. I spent two great seasons with the Minutemen before signing with Worcester of the AHL to begin my professional career.
I worked my way up and eventually got the call to San Jose to play in the NHL, a dream come true. It wasn’t always easy, but I was able to put together almost three seasons with the Sharks before I became a free agent for the first time in the summer of 2015.
There were a few offers, but after consulting with my wife and family, we decided on Boston, a chance to head back east and play for an Original Six franchise. So, I joined the Bruins and had a great camp. Professional hockey can be ruthless, though, and as the season started, I certainly did not light it on fire. It was more of a dumpster fire, actually.
I had my first two games and I was a minus-5. I’ll always remember that, too.
It was as if anything that could go in was going in while I was on the ice and it was a frustrating way to make a first impression with the organization. They put me on waivers, and then I went down to Providence of the AHL once I cleared and I never got called back up.
It was a disappointing season, but I knew I could still play at the NHL level. I just needed another chance, but I didn’t know when or where it would come.
Luckily, Nashville called that summer, and they showed a lot of interest in me. That was very encouraging, and I ended up signing a deal with the Predators with a chance to prove myself once more.
Nashville’s GM, David Poile, also called to congratulate me and asked if I was ready to turn the page on the previous season. He knew the year prior with Boston and Providence was a struggle and ensured me that there was a new opportunity ahead. That meant a lot to me.
But then training camp didn’t go how I wanted it to. The goal is to make the team out of camp, and I didn’t have a strong showing. There was room for improvement, and it was something that I spoke to our head coach, Peter Laviolette, about when I was getting sent down to Milwaukee. I was honest with him, and he was super honest with me. They knew I could play at the NHL level, and I knew I could too, it was just a matter of getting my feet wet with a new organization and new system.
I learned quickly, and thank goodness I did, because my stint in Milwaukee only lasted four games. I got my second opportunity in Nashville, and I was able to carve out a good season and earn the trust of the organization and the coaching staff before signing an extension later that year. Then, during the 2017-18 season, I signed a two-year contract to stay with the Preds through 2020. It seems like such a far cry from shooting buckets of pucks in Nanaimo.
The odds weren’t always in my favor to make it to this point. I was never drafted, and I didn’t even turn pro until I was 23. I’ve just always remembered something my dad told me early on as I was advancing in the game during my younger days.
He instilled in me that if you’re good enough, they’ll find you. He told me I didn’t necessarily have to be the star player, but there are plenty of good eyes for talent and they’re going to find you a spot if you find a way to stand out. If you’re doing your thing and standing out for different reasons, maybe for some of the intangibles of the game, someone will notice. For me, it was playing every game and knowing there was a potential that somebody was out there.
I’ve combined that mindset with something I’ve learned to be true over the course of my career. Hockey can be so unpredictable, and I’ve learned to not try to figure out what’s going throughout coaches’ minds or managers’ minds because it just puts stress on yourself and you have zero control over it.
The only thing you can really control is your attitude and the way you play the game. The biggest thing is to look forward to that next opportunity and just be ready for it. You don’t know when it’s going to happen, and once you get that second opportunity, you don’t know how many more you’re going to get after that. You just have to be prepared to enjoy it and have fun with it.
So, no matter how many teams turn you down or don’t give you a look, no matter what city you’re in or what logo is on your chest, always remember this: you can walk into a room full of hockey players and you might not know a single person, but everyone shares that love for the game in common. And there’s no better feeling.