Back in 2013, Matt Irwin was rocking the teal and white of the San Jose Sharks in his NHL playoff debut as they swept the Vancouver Canucks.
That series loss essentially ended the most successful run in team history for Vancouver – head coach Alain Vigneault was fired and the team has only hosted three playoff home games since.
Fast forward a decade later and Irwin is now playing a key veteran role on the Abbotsford Canucks.
The Vancouver Island product is wearing an A as an important part of the AHL club’s leadership group and is helping shape the future talent of the Canucks organization as they develop.
Irwin said he still remembers the nerves taking the ice at Rogers Arena to battle in the postseason against the team he grew up watching. He admitted it’s not a topic he has chosen to bring up around Daniel or Henrik Sedin – who played against Irwin back in 2013 and are now both in special advisory roles with the Canucks.
“I’ve never brought it up,” he said, with a chuckle of the 2013 series. “I don’t know if I ever will.”
Irwin’s hockey journey began in his hometown of Brentwood Bay and he grew up wanting to play for the local Peninsula Panthers of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League.
“You’d go to the games every Friday and everyone wanted to be on that team,” he said, of his time in the Peninsula Minor Hockey Association.
But playing on the Panthers wasn’t in the cards and he was scooped up by the VIJHL’s Saanich Braves. From there he was given an opportunity to play up with the British Columbia Hockey League’s Nanaimo Clippers and he developed under legendary coach Bill Bestwick.
Irwin put up 49 points in 60 games with the Clippers in 2006-07 and followed that up with 53 points in 59 games in 2007-08. He helped the Clippers win the BCHL title in 2006-07 and was the first-ever inductee on the Clippers Wall of Honour. He also had his #44 retired by Saanich. Irwin said those years in Nanaimo working with Bestwick transformed him into a professional.
“To this day we still talk,” he said of Bestwick. “He has a lot of fire and intensity but the expectation for our group was to be the best organization in the league. He made sure everyone worked hard and represented themselves well. And he had such a great track record of sending guys to play at the NCAA level.”
The NCAA is exactly where Irwin went following his time in Nanaimo, playing for the University of Massachusetts Amherst Minutemen for two seasons and completing his degree.
Irwin began his AHL journey after signing with the Sharks organization and joining their affiliate team in Worcester. He spent the next four seasons there, including an AHL career-high 42 points in 2011-12 before joining the San Jose club in the 2012-13 season.
One of Irwin’s first defensive partners in San Jose was Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medallist Dan Boyle.
“He had a similar path to me in that he was undrafted and a college free agent,” Irwin said. “He was such a good guy and he really carried me and believed in me when I was getting my feet wet in the NHL. I’ll forever be grateful to him.”
After three seasons in San Jose, Irwin joined the Boston Bruins and also suited up for their AHL team in Providence. He then signed with the Nashville Predators where he played four seasons and had significant team success.
Irwin played all 22 playoff games for Nashville during that team’s run to the Stanley Cup in 2017. The Predators fell to the Penguins in the final, but he still remembers his time in Nashville fondly.
“It was an unbelievable run,” he said, noting that he fit in after struggling to maintain a spot with Boston. “I switched from a bit of a power play guy like I was with San Jose and Boston to a role where I was just asked to be solid, keep the puck out of the net and contribute offensively when I can. But I felt like I had the trust of that coaching staff and I learned so much.”
He then had stints with the Anaheim Ducks and Buffalo Sabres before spending the past two seasons with the Washington Capitals. For his career he has suited up 461 times in the NHL. Irwin said everything lined up to join the Canucks organization this summer. He signed with the club on July 1.
“Growing up on the Island, being where I’m at in my career and being close to home were all huge factors,” he said, noting he is turning 36 later this month. “And having the opportunity to play for a team I watched growing up. The relationship with Vancouver and Abbotsford being so close and being able to live with my family year-round was also big.”
Irwin said he had no idea he was going to be wearing a letter in Abbotsford, but he was thrilled to receive it.
“It’s a tremendous honour,” he said. “I do think I bring some leadership with my age and experience in a number of different roles. I’ve kind of seen it all. But it doesn’t change how I act in the locker room. Everyone has a voice in our room and everyone should know they can be heard. That’s a big thing I’ve learned in my career – we all have different experiences and those might help the person next to you without actually knowing it.”
Canucks head coach Jeremy Colliton said Irwin has been a great fit on the team.
“It’s nice to have a guy like him around and he’s just a nice resource for everyone,” he said. “He brings so much energy to the room. He’s a professional, so having a guy like that in your group really helps with development.”
Christian Wolanin, one of Irwin’s fellow defenceman in Abbotsford, said Irwin has been a great addition.
“He’s a phenomenal guy,” he told the Canucks Conversation podcast. “He’s a great leader. His career has been an interesting one in that he’s been a five, six or seven guy for a lot of it and you can tell by his attitude and how he makes everyone feel included. There was no sulking or moping from him on being in the minors.”
Irwin said he wants to let his younger teammates know how valuable time in the AHL can be. He stated that all players obviously want to get to the NHL and play there as quickly as possible, but he noted that his time in the league made him a better player.
“There are a ton of benefits playing in the AHL,” he said. “You can play lots of minutes in all situations against older and stronger men. And the schedule is difficult and can be a grind, especially in your first or second year. And there is pressure but it’s not the pressure at the highest level in the NHL. It’s a developmental league but it can allow players to prepare themselves for when that opportunity comes.”
He’s played mostly with prospect Filip Johansson and spoke positively of many of the prospects in Abbotsford. He added that he believes it’s only a matter of time before forward Arshdeep Bains gets some chances in Vancouver.
As for Irwin’s next opportunity, he said he is content playing in Abbotsford but he would cherish the chance to play in Vancouver.
“Even at my age my goal is to play some games up in Vancouver,” he said. “If my name gets called it would be a dream come true. But I can’t get too far ahead because we all have a job to do here in Abbotsford.”
Irwin and the Abbotsford Canucks return to the Abbotsford Centre to host the Laval Rocket on Dec. 1.