BUFFALO, N.Y. – The goalie equipment didn't exactly fit Arturs Irbe. What did were the familiar competitive emotions the 47-year-old once enjoyed during his NHL playing days.
"Once a goalie, always a goalie," Irbe said with a wide grin.
Seven years after Irbe thought he hung up his pads for good, the Buffalo Sabres goalie coach came out of retirement for a few hours on Wednesday night. Irbe signed what's called a tryout contract to serve as Buffalo's backup after starter Michal Neuvirth was hurt during the first period of a 4-1 win over San Jose.
"I said, 'Ted, I haven't donned a uniform in seven years,'" Irbe said, recalling the conversation he had with Sabres coach Ted Nolan during the first intermission. "And he said, 'It doesn't matter. Now you will.'"
With backup goalie Jhonas Enroth taking over, Irbe scrambled to find equipment that fit his 5-foot-8 frame.
Irbe pulled on a pair of Enroth's pads because the two, coincidently, are about the same size. The glove and blocker he wore were ones left behind by former Sabres starter Ryan Miller last season. As for the mask, Irbe doesn't know where the equipment staff found it.
By the start of the third period, Irbe was standing in the hallway leading to the Sabres' bench, psyching up for the slight possibility that he might play.
"It was the atmosphere, that feeling that you're back there by the bench and the game is going on and you're pulling for your team," Irbe said. "I was thinking how I would approach it if I had to go in, visualizing: the best part of the game."
The Latvian-born Irbe broke into the NHL with San Jose in 1991-92. He eventually split 13 seasons between four teams, including the last six with the Carolina, where he helped the Hurricanes win the Eastern Conference championship in 2002.
He then spent three years playing in Europe before turning his attention to coaching.
Irbe was hired by the Sabres last summer, and reunited with Nolan, who also doubles as Latvia's national team coach.
The Sabres have another Latvian connection in second-year forward Zemgus Girgensons.
"Oh, that would've been awesome, something that I would have never thought about," Girgensons said of the possibility of playing in front of Irbe. "It's just funny that he got the (tryout contract)."
Irbe never imagined he'd get this chance, either.
"Be careful what you wish for," Irbe said, smiling. "Obviously, I didn't want Jhonny to get hurt or something bad happen. But if I would go in, I would have had fun."