(This article was originally published on Apr. 8, 2021)
From the Fred Page Cup to the Stanley Cup Final, Matt Irwin is one lucky individual.
The Victoria product and Nanaimo Clippers alumnus has carved out quite the career in the professional ranks, amassing more than 375 National Hockey League games in five organizations.
However, it all started for Irwin in 2004-05 playing Junior B with the Saanich Braves of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League, posting 17 points in 47 games. Irwin also suited up in three games for the Clippers as an affiliate player.
“It was interesting because when I committed to playing for Saanich, I grew up with the Peninsula Panthers. (Playing for the Panthers) was kind of the goal for playing junior B as it was close to home for me. But, that didn’t work out and through some hockey camps in the summer I got to know Dick Crowder really well who was the coach of the Braves at that time. I guess I caught their eye and they (were) affiliated with the Clippers and that got me a tryout at (Nanaimo’s) training camp the first year.”
“I didn’t make (the Clippers) but I was pretty realistic with myself and playing in Saanich was best for me and my development at the time.”
Earning his stripes
The following year, Irwin proved he belonged at the BCHL level by playing on a nightly basis and recording nine points in 56 games.
While those numbers don’t jump off the page, legendary Clippers bench boss Bill Bestwick called it one of the best 12-month development jumps he has ever seen.
“I knew going into it what kind of a coach Bill was. He was demanding, he expected a lot out of his players and it was all about working hard and being a good teammate. (It was all with) the expectation that the Clippers had developed a reputation for winning in the years prior to me joining the team. The organization was run like a professional hockey team – I went in there not totally knowing what to expect. I was a young player who was trying to earn his stripes, that was a process for me.”
“(Bill) believed in me from the get-go. There was no doubt I was going to turn out to be a great player for him and he just pushed all the right buttons. That’s what we needed, we couldn’t get complacent with what we had,” said Irwin.
The Clippers finished first overall in the entire BCHL with a record of 44-12-0-4 but stumbled in the quarterfinals in the playoffs and were ousted earlier than expected.
Irwin and his teammates reloaded the following year and embarked on what turned out to be one of the best years in Clippers history.
Irwin took a quantum leap forward, notching 22 goals and 49 points in 60 games during the regular season on a Nanaimo team that had included Brendan Mason, Tyler Mazzei, Erick Belanger, and Taylor Langford just to name a few.
For the third year in a row, the Clippers finished first overall in the BCHL with a mark of 41-12-2-5 and this time they completed the mission and became Fred Page Cup champions.
“It was a special group, we all got along really well and won a lot of hockey games. You seem to bond a lot better and appreciate the team a lot more when you are winning. We went into those playoff series and they certainly weren’t easy. I think we had a seven-game series against Burnaby, then we had Cowichan in there and we played Vernon in the final and won it on a last-second goal.”
“I look back at some of the pictures sometimes and it’s pretty wild to think that the time has gone by that fast. It was a special group and it was a lot of fun. We had great rivalries with Port Alberni and Cowichan. In Port Alberni, the rink was full and always loud and with Cowichan, there was hatred between those two teams all three years I was there (in Nanaimo). That’s what makes it so fun and enjoyable, when you are in a seven-game series, the intensity ramps up that much more,” added Irwin.
As vaunted as the Clippers were, the Coastal Division was far from a cakewalk with the Victoria Grizzlies finishing only seven points behind, with a record of 39-17-3-1, followed by Cowichan Valley at 36-16-2-6 and the Burnaby Express at 34-25-0-1.
Irwin believes the stiff competition pushed the Clippers to be their best every night.
“That’s what primed us for the playoffs because you know you will run into one or two of those teams at some point throughout the run. Those competitive games throughout the year weren’t a cakewalk and that got us ready for playoffs when it mattered most.”
However, Nanaimo fell short in the Doyle Cup, losing in five games to the Camrose Kodiaks.
Upended by Penticton
The Clippers aimed to become repeat champions in the BCHL during the 2007-08 campaign, going 42-14-0-4. Irwin took another towards stardom with 53 points in 59 games.
However, the road wasn’t nearly as smooth for the Clippers, despite earning a first-round bye. In the Coastal Conference semifinals, Nanaimo swept the Powell River Kings in four straight games.
While the Clippers got past the Langley Chiefs in six games in the conference finals, that series took the wind out of their sails.
“I think every year you have to be good, but you (also) have to be lucky. Not every team that goes through the playoffs goes through unscathed, that is very rare. That Langley series was a pretty tough one. I remember it being an emotional roller coaster ride,” explained Irwin.
Penticton swept Nanaimo in the Fred Page Cup Final, ending any chance of a repeat reign atop of the BCHL mountain. After the season, Irwin headed to the UMass Minutemen of the NCAA where he spent two seasons before turning pro with the San Jose Sharks.
In part two of Clippers Confidential with Matt Irwin, I’ll explore his career in the American Hockey League and NHL to this point.