Heading into the 2011-12 season, there’s a strong argument to be made that Leland Irving is the face of the Abbotsford Heat franchise.
Former head coach Jim Playfair filled that role during the AHL club’s first two seasons in town, but he’s moved onward and upward, having accepted an associate coaching job with the Phoenix Coyotes in June.
Among other candidates, Heat president Ryan Walter and bench boss Troy Ward certainly have a public profile, but they’re both less than four months into their respective jobs.
Which leaves Irving, the 23-year-old goaltender from Swan Hills, Alta.
He’s one of just two players currently on the roster who were around for the Heat’s first-ever game in 2009, the other being defenceman John Negrin. But Negrin, having missed 91 games since then due to persistent injury issues, is far less familiar to local fans than Irving.
The keeper, furthermore, was the Heat’s MVP last season when he backstopped the offensively challenged club to the brink of a playoff berth against all odds. And after spending the past two off-seasons here, he’s basically an honourary Abbotsford native at this point.
Then there are the Heat promotional banners hanging from lamp posts all around town, depicting Irving making a save.
Pitch the face-of-the-franchise thesis to Irving, though, and he handles it like a shot from centre ice – he steers it to the corner with his metaphorical blocker.
“I never look at it that way,” he said. “We’re out there as a group, and we’re playing for the logo on the jersey. There’s no one guy that’s going to take this team anywhere. It’s going to take all of us.”
Fair enough. But what about your face on all those banners?
“They’re hard to miss,” Irving said with a chuckle, and perhaps a blush. “It is cool, but I like to try to keep it low-key.
“I don’t consider myself any sort of celebrity. I’m a regular person who’s out here playing hockey for a living.”
Irving, a regular person though he may be, was anything but average between the pipes for the Heat last season. He was a true workhorse, as only four goalies – Barry Brust of the Binghamton Senators, Richard Bachman of the Texas Stars, Eddie Lack of the Manitoba Moose and Matt Climie of the San Antonio Rampage – saw more rubber than the 1,518 shots the Heat starting keeper faced last season.
Irving thrived under the workload, leading the league in shutouts (eight) and setting an AHL record for shootout wins in a season (nine). He also finished second overall with 30 wins, while posting a 2.30 goals against average and a .913 save percentage.
In the wake of Irving’s stellar campaign, there was buzz that he might be in the running to back up Miikka Kiprusoff with the NHL parent Calgary Flames this fall. The Flames, though, were comfortable with incumbent backup Henrik Karlsson, and re-signed him to a new two-year, one-way NHL contract in June.
That turn of events was disappointing to Irving. The Flames made a qualifying offer to retain his services, but knowing he was ticketed for another year in the AHL, Irving seriously considered an offer to play in Europe.
“It was frustrating,” Irving admitted. “I went out and did exactly what Calgary asked of me, and proved that I could be a starter and a consistent No. 1 (in the AHL). When that (Karlsson contract) happened, it kind of sends a message.
“There was a deal in place (in Europe) if I wanted it. But I wanted to stay in North America. My goal is still to play in the NHL, but it’s a process and it takes time getting there. The AHL is the best development league. You’ve got more guys coming out of here than any other league.”
A big part of Irving’s decision to come back on a one-year contract was his strong relationship with Ward, combined with the fact the Flames made a move to shore up netminder development by hiring Jordan Sigalet as the Heat’s first full-time goalie coach.
“Providing I play well, I’m going to get to play a lot, which is going to be huge for my development,” Irving said. “It’s going to be a lot better than playing 10 or 15 games behind Kipper. For the long run, there’s no other place I’d rather be than Abbotsford.”
Irving stuck around Abbotsford the past two summers because his hometown doesn’t offer the same training opportunities. He skated regularly with a group of local pros, including Kyle Cumiskey of the Colorado Avalanche and current AHLers like Dean Arsene, David Van der Gulik and Derek Grant.
Off the ice, Irving worked part-time at Fraserglen Golf and Training Centre, teaching lessons to kids.
“It’s just something fun for me to do to keep busy,” he said. “They seem to enjoy it, and that puts a smile on my face.”
Irving was also a frequent presence at Abbotsford Recreation Centre, working out alongside Heat defenceman Chris Breen. Breen, at 6’7” and 224 pounds, set the bar high for the goalie.
“He’s a big guy, and he’s tough to keep up with in the gym,” Irving said with a grin. “It was great, and we pushed each other along all summer.”
As the Heat embark on a new season, Irving says it’s a “huge” year for him.
“I’ve got to earn whatever I get next year,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re just here to play. At the end of the day, you just want to have fun, and winning is fun. We’ve got a great group of guys here, and we’re headed in the right direction. We’re definitely excited about the year ahead.”