This article is one of two dueling Daily Cup of Joe posts that aim to address the serious goalie situation but also try to add a bit of levity to the situation. The heavier article can be found HERE.
Today I will share something that I have kept under wraps for more than 13 years. Though the day it all started left an indelible mark on my memory, I initially questioned the legitimacy of it all and maybe even more so just shied away from sharing it for fear of being called a charlatan, conspiracy theorist or just plain liar. But in the years that have unfolded, the reality and significance of day in March of 2004 has become increasingly meaningful to our plight as Canes fans and something that I must finally share. Hopefully, revealing the event of that day will help fans understand what is happened, possibly provide some solace and maybe even help change our course.
It all started back in 1998, more precisely on September 10, 1998 when Carolina Hurricanes General Manager Jim Rutherford signed Arturs Irbe. At the time, the team was still in the midst of a challenging transition playing its second season in Greensboro before moving to Raleigh for the start of the 1999-00 season and there were legitimate concerns about whether the hockey thing could work in North Carolina. But three years later it became clear that it could. The Hurricanes pushed into the 2000-01 playoffs and gained the hearts of a small contingent of fans in the process. Then in the 2002 NHL playoffs, the course of Hurricanes hockey changed forever when the team captivated the local sports community with a magical run all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.
During that time frame, the franchise gained credibility in the broader NHL when veteran, future hall of famer Ron Francis joined the team and another notch in its cap when Rod Brind’Amour was obtained via trade and decided to re-sign. But more than any other player in Hurricanes history, Arturs Irbe was the mascot and spirit animal for the first wave of Hurricanes hockey. Arturs Irbe’s quirky personality and seemingly out of place bucket helmet and straight from the garage-looking old pads were out of place in the NHL just like the fan base that was similarly quirky and odd with its tailgating and other attempts to take 80-year old NHL hockey and do it their own way.
Arturs Irbe’s rise was spectacular (read his Canes and Coffee bio here), but unfortunately his fall was maybe even more magnanimous. As with every other Hurricanes hockey run in the playoffs, the magic of the spring and summer of 2002 was followed by hard times. The 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons saw the Hurricanes not just miss the playoffs but also fall to the bottom of the league. The team was suddenly bad, aging and without much for youthful help on the way. Somewhere along the way Arturs Irbe hit hard times just like the rest of the team. Irbe’s .902 save percentage during the 2001-02 season fell to .877 in 2002-03, and he eventually found himself demoted to the AHL but not before Irbe and Rutherford squared off with some chirping. Unwilling to back down, Irbe clearly rubbed Rutherford the wrong way and ultimately paid for it.
From there, the remainder of Irbe’s NHL career followed a meandering path the fell to the depths of professional hockey. Dealing a final blow in their skirmish, Jim Rutherford did Arturs Irbe wrong and assigned him to the Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL putting the proven NHL netminder a full two levels below the NHL level. But a season-ending injury to Hurricanes goalie Kevin Weekes and possibly the hope of boosting trade value saw Arturs Irbe recalled to the NHL level in the waning days of the 2003-04 season.
And finally getting to the crux of it all, that is when it all happened. That is when the Hurricanes troubles in net began and when I began withholding a truth that initially seemed far-fetched but has grown to become a painful reality of life as a Hurricanes fan.
At the time of Irbe’s reacall, I was working on getting signatures from the entire 2002 Stanley Cup Finals team on a jersey. I had collected the vast majority of them during season ticket holder events, the Jimmy V golf outing and wherever else I could track down the players who were no longer with the team. Because he had departed so soon after the magical Cup run, Irbe was the last player whose signature I needed. So after a practice on a sunny but blustery day in late March, I parked myself outside the player gate and waited in hopes that I could flag down Irbe departing the then Entertainment and Sports Arena and collect the last signature to make my keepsake complete. After waiting and watching various players and staff depart, Irbe finally appeared. He nearly ran me over as I tried to make sure he stopped, but once he saw that I was trying to wave him down, he stopped and rolled down his window. I thanked him for his role in the magical 2002 NHL Playoff run and told him that I was sorry that things had not worked out for him since.
What happened next seemed odd at the time but not necessarily meaningful, but the significance of that moment has since grown in magnitude, especially in recent years, with the Hurricanes struggles in net. While he was looking down to sign my jersey, he replied with courteous small talk saying, “Those were indeed good times” in talking about the 2002 playoffs that I had mentioned. Then he looked up and handed me the jersey , he addressed what had happened since when he deadpanned, “It’s okay. I will put a curse on the goalies of this team, maybe on their gloves, for what has happened since the playoffs.” He chuckled with a friendly laugh as if it was a joke, but to this day, I can close my eyes and see the unmistakable seriousness in his eyes. For whatever reason, something about the odd exchange always stuck with me but only grew in relevance as the Hurricanes struggles in net have mounted.
About three months later, Arturs Irbe quietly departed in a trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets on June 16, 2004 for the “future considerations” that mean a team just wanted a player gone.
Like anyone else would have, I completely wrote off any significance of the exchange when Cam Ward rose up as a rookie goalie and led the team to the 2006 Stanley Cup championship. But when I look back now I cannot help but wonder if the smart and crafty Irbe actually used that one fit of success to set up the massive amount of pain that has followed. The Hurricanes did have another magical playoff run in 2009, but for the most part netminding has been a source of pain for Hurricanes fans for many years now. Ward just did not live up to high expectations at least in terms of earning post-season berths but yet was locked into a long-term contract. And no other goalie since Ward has had really any success whatsoever in a Hurricanes uniform. And the telltale sign that just maybe there is something to Irbe’s joking curse is the volume of issues for Hurricanes netminders centered around their glove. When times are tough for Ward, the glove hand is always right in the middle of it. And Darling’s glove hand ‘oops’ on the pop up took things to a whole new level.
The potentially good news if anyone of significance believes me is that the curse can be removed with one simple but odd occurrence. In homage to Arturs Irbe and everything that he did but was maybe not respected for in a Hurricanes uniform, at least one and ideally both of the Hurricanes goalies must practice with an old bucket style helmet similar to the Jofa helmet that was Irbe’s trademark. If that happens, the curse on the Hurricanes goalies will be forever lifted.
For many years if this information did make it into the management and coaching ranks at PNC Arena, it would certainly have been written off as the crazy stuff of a conspiracy theory. But with the 2017-18 season hanging in the balance, new goalie Scott Darling struggling mightily and none of the more logical solutions yielding anything for results, just maybe I can get an audience with some combination of Bill Peters, Mike Bales, Scott Darling and Cam Ward and sell the best sales job of my entire life to help lift the curse of Arturs Irbe off of the team’s goalies.