The full arc of Matt Irwin’s hockey career will come into focus tonight when the Nanaimo Clippers make the Nashville Predators defenceman the first inductee into their newly inaugurated Wall of Honour.
Irwin, who was a healthy scratch Tuesday night as the Predators played in Vancouver against the Canucks, will be in Nanaimo tonight for the ceremony before the Clippers’ B.C. Hockey League game against the Alberni Valley Bulldogs.
“It’s an incredible and humbling feeling — and not something you ever envision when you first put on the jersey,” Irwin said.
This is the second such honour for Irwin, whose retired No. 44 Saanich Braves Junior B jersey hangs from the rafters of Pearkes Arena.
The Clippers do not retire jerseys. Names of past greats with the franchise will be added to the new Wall of Honour. It is the equivalent of the Rings of Honour encircling arenas and stadiums that have bowl designs, which Frank Crane Arena does not have.
“Those three seasons in Nanaimo with the Clippers were such a critical part of my hockey development,” Irwin said.
And also in the most momentous thing to happen in his life. Nanaimo is where Irwin met his wife, Chantel.
Raised in Brentwood Bay, Irwin graduated from the Peninsula Minor Hockey Association to the Saanich Braves in the Vancouver Island Hockey League and then to the Clippers of the BCHL.
That led to two seasons in NCAA Div. 1 at UMass-Amherst before signing with the San Jose Sharks and being assigned for three seasons to the Worcester Sharks of the of the American Hockey League.
That has been followed by 330 regular-season and 47 playoff games over seven NHL seasons with the Sharks and Predators.
Irwin has carried the lessons from the “Clippers Way” through it all.
“[Former Clippers GM and head coach] Bill Bestwick instilled in us not only hockey lessons but lessons on how to carry yourself through life in general,” Irwin said.
“Every kid who starts out in hockey dreams of playing in the NHL. But it’s just a dream, and nobody is quite sure or knows about the steps that need to be taken. Even if you get good enough, those opportunities are few and far between, and you have to seize them at every level.”
Which is exactly what Irwin did, despite not being drafted. Bestwick saw something in that kid out of Junior B and took a chance.
“I was not a standout in my rookie year in Nanaimo,” Irwin said.
But he springboarded to being named Clippers captain by his third and final season.
"You learn so many life lessons about team dynamics and personalities, even at 20, by being a captain,” Irwin said.
The Islander has become known for his community work through school visits and such, from Nanaimo to Nashville. Tali Campbell, now director of business operations for the Clippers, remembers being enthralled as a student at Park Avenue Elementary in Nanaimo when Irwin visited the school as a Clipper.
“He came to my school and I never forgot that,” Campbell said.
It’s paying back, said Irwin, who turns 32 this month.
“It’s so important to support the community that supports you,” he said.
“Whether it’s the NHL, minor pro or junior, people are spending their hard-earned dollars to watch you play. You should repay that support in any way that you can.”
In the midst of the 2017 Stanley Cup final between the Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins, Irwin saw on Facebook that a heartbroken 11-year-old Spencer Middle School student had had his hockey equipment stolen and that his family couldn’t afford to replace it.
Irwin arranged to have the equipment replaced. That was in between preparing for Game 6 against the eventually victorious Pens.
“Once you meet Matt, you realize he is simply a compassionate and caring guy,” Campbell said.