Matt Irwin says he’s taken advantage of the opportunities that have come his way to play hockey at ever-increasing levels.
Now, the Brentwood Bay native is poised to play the game at its pinnacle: the Stanley Cup playoff.
Irwin is shoring up the blueline for the Nashville Predators, which punched their ticket to the finals on May 22 with a decisive 6-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks. Irwin recorded an assist on Nashville’s first goal that night. He tallied two assists and a penalty in the six-game series that saw the Predators advance through their first Western Conference finals to their first Stanley Cup playoff.
Now, they await the winner of the Easter Conference final between the Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins. That game is scheduled to go tonight (May 25) at 5 p.m. PST.
No matter who wins that series, Irwin says, Nashville will have to battle to win back home ice advantage, as they’ve never had it through the playoffs.
Irwin grew up on the Saanich Peninsula, playing his minor hockey starting at age four with Peninsula Minor Hockey’s Eagles.
“It’s there where you meet a lot of good, close friends,” he said in an interview from Nashville. “I am still close with a lot of them … and we always come back (the Brentwood Bay) after each season.”
Growing up and playing hockey, he said, it’s always the dream to play professional hockey — and make it to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yet, he said while he also had those dreams, he tried to stay focused on playing the game, having fun and taking advantage of the opportunities to play at higher and higher levels.
From his minor hockey years, Irwin jumped into Junior B with the Saanich Braves. He later made the roster of the Naniamo Clippers of the BCHL, where he was named best defenseman in 2007 and 2008 — his final two seasons before moving to U.S. college hockey with the University of Massachusetts. Irwin said he’d hoped to play out his full four years there, but like his previous experiences in hockey, another opportunity to play at a higher level came along after his second season.
He signed a contract with the Worcester Sharks of the AHL for the 2009-10 season and mid-way through his third season he was called up to the parent team, the San Jose Sharks of the NHL, when injuries sidelined a pair of players. After a two-year contract extension, Irwin signed a one-year deal with the Boston Bruins and was later reassigned to their AHL affiliate team, the Providence Bruins. After his contract with Boston ended, the free agent signed a one-year contract with Nashville.
For the undrafted Irwin, that’s been a long road, leading him to the top of professional hockey this month.
He said there are always scouts looking for talented players and for him, whether is was due to injuries or something else, he’s been lucky enough to have the opportunities to get him to the next level.
Now getting ready to play on hockey’s biggest stage, Irwin said he’s taking it a game at a time.
“It’s what every kid dreams about while they’re playing road hockey,” he said.
With the Stanley Cup final set to begin following the conference finals, Irwin said he’s resting up and tying not to think too far ahead. It’s the same in the Predators’ locker room, he added, where his teammates are looking beyond the struggles of previous seasons and getting ready for that next game.
He said his parents and family from Brentwood Bay came down for the final game against Anaheim, adding they plan to stick around for the beginning of the Stanley Cup final series.
Something he’s asked a lot about is playing hockey in Nashville, Tennessee. He admitted that growing up, it hadn’t really crossed his mind, but credited the organization for building a team that has been getting a lot of fan support in a city known more for its country music pedigree.
“The fans here are so loud,” he said, “and so passionate. They really have totally picked us up. It’s a fun atmosphere.”
Irwin said he expect that once the series - and the season - is done, he’ll make his usual return to his home town. Hopefully, he added, he’ll be able to share the Stanley Cup with his friends and family back home.