CALGARY, AB -- Leland Irving didn’t need to say a word.
His smile said it all.
Winning the backup battle in camp, Irving was grinning ear-to-ear by the time media had the opportunity to quiz the 24-year-old on what it meant to start the season with the Calgary Flames for the first time in his professional career.
“It’s awesome, no better feeling,” said Irving, who is now set to backup Miikka Kiprusoff. “It’s taken a lot of hard work and a few obstacles along the way but I couldn’t be happier.”
The opportunity has been a long time coming for the first round pick of the Flames in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. Irving has spent parts of five seasons and 182 games in the American Hockey League before earning his first job out of camp.
“This doesn’t happen overnight,” he said. “It’s not like all of a sudden magically I learned how to stop a puck. It’s hours and hours of practice. All the little things make a big difference.”
“Obviously you have your doubts every once in a while, especially when things aren’t going right. I just stuck to the process. I knew what I was capable of. I was just focusing on getting back to myself and playing my game. I feel like I’ve really been able to do that lately.”
The door initially opened for Irving last season.
Shuttling back-and-forth between Abbotsford and Calgary, Irving saw spot-duty starts from December onward. In all, the former Everett Silvertips goaltender saw action in seven games, posting a 3.20 goals against average and .912 save percentage.
But it was his performance this week in camp that solidified his position on the roster, according to head coach Bob Hartley.
“It was a battle but we felt from the first day to yesterday, overall Leland was the clear winner,” Hartley said.
“We felt he was better. It’s not fun, it’s not a fun situation but this is a very competitive business and you have to make the right decision and more importantly, the most honest decision and that’s what we feel we’ve done.”
Having played just six games with the Heat this season and in the last year of his contract, Irving approached the tryout with a similar seriousness.
“I know the contract situation and just the way the start of my season was going, I knew I had to do something special to put myself apart and really prove that I deserved to be here,” he said.
“I came out here, took every day very seriously. I didn’t want to waste a day. I tried to get better every day and I proved I can play at this level.”
With one final opportunity to show his wares in a controlled scrimmage Thursday, Irving posted a shutout in the special teams driven affair. After holding his teammates off the scoreboard in the 40-minute exhibition, Irving turned aside all five foes faced in the friendly shootout that followed.
That performance solidified the coaching staff’s choice of who would serve as this season’s backup.
“I felt each day was a step closer but definitely the scrimmage was kind of the final stepping stone,” Irving said. “I was fortunate enough to come out of there with a good, solid performance.”
And the win, earning Irving the right to back up the winningest goaltender in franchise history.
Which will keep the smile on his face for the foreseeable future.
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