Irving understands perseverance

by Samantha Wood || for

At six feet tall and 23 years old, Calgary Flames prospect Leland Irving of the Abbotsford Heat is neither the biggest nor the youngest goaltender in the American Hockey League. But he’s quickly becoming one of the best.

Newly minted as the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week, Irving is riding high with his Heat atop the Western Conference. Having started 18 of Abbotsford’s first 19 games this season, Irving (13-5-0) leads the AHL in wins, minutes played (1,022) and shutouts (3) while ranking fourth with a 1.94 goals-against average and 10th with a .927 save percentage.

After being drafted by Calgary in the first round of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (26th overall), Irving has spent the last four seasons backstopping the Flames’ AHL affiliate. He said his game has changed dramatically since turning pro, thanks to intensive coaching and training.

“It’s developed quite a bit over the years,” Irving said. “Being I guess what you would consider one of the league’s smaller goalies nowadays, I’ve had to adapt and become a lot more patient and outwait shooters.

“I spent a lot of hard hours in the gym [in the offseason] and spent some time working with a couple different goalie coaches.”

Irving’s hard work has paid off, illustrated by his award-winning performance last week, which included two 34-save shutouts. On Sunday evening in Houston, with first place in the West Division up for grabs, he dueled Minnesota Wild prospect Matt Hackett for 65 scoreless minutes before Irving stopped all five shootout attempts to give the Heat a 1-0 win.

Irving credits the Calgary Flames organization with creating an effective development system for him to grow into.

“[The Calgary coaches] have taken care of pretty much all aspects of a hockey player,” he said. “As a goaltender, I’ve got a goalie coach down there working with me as well. They’ve done a great job at providing a good support system for us.”

It hasn’t always been so easy for Irving to thrive. As a seven-year-old in his hometown of Swan Hills, Alta., he was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare childhood cancer. After undergoing more than a year of chemotherapy, he beat the often-fatal disease.

Now, 16 years later, Irving is completely healthy, but hasn’t forgotten the experience.

“Physically, I don’t feel like I’m held back in any way, but mentally, I think I’m able to persevere a little bit through some tough situations,” he said. “At the same time I feel like I got a bit of a soft spot for kids or anybody who’s got to go through that.”

Along with his Abbotsford teammates, Irving has participated in several charity projects benefitting cancer research, allowing that seven-year-old from Swan Hills to come full-circle.

“There are so many people touched by cancer nowadays,” he said. “It’s not something everybody has to experience, but for those that do, you know exactly what they’re going through.”

Though his own professional career has only just begun, the fourth-year netminder offered some advice for novice goaltenders.

“Just work hard,” Irving said. “It’s a mental grind, but everything will pay off as long as you keep at it.”

As for him, Irving said he’ll remain focused on the team’s most important goal: winning.

“Team goals always come first,” he explained. “We’re looking to get in the playoffs and win our division. Come playoff time, we’ll take another look at it and go from there.”