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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

Irbe and Myllys walked so other could run - the beginning of European goalies.

The 1990s was the start of the era of the European goalie. Yes, there were European goalies who played in the NHL prior to the 1990s: the tragic Flyer Pelle Lindbergh, journeymen like Markus Mattson (Winnipeg, Minnesota, Los Angeles) and Jiri Crha (Toronto), Don Cherry’s favourite punchline, Hardy Astrom (New York Rangers and Colorado) and those who had brief stops, like Hannu Kamppuri (New Jersey), Sergei Mylnikov (Quebec), and Jari Kaarela (Colorado).

Two of the earliest European goalies to play in the NHL are featured in this post - Arturs Irbe from Latvia and Jarmo Myllys from Finland. Irbe achieved cult star status with San Jose and Carolina, first by leading the Sharks on a surprise playoff run to help fans forget their truly atrocious first two seasons. Irbe, famous for fixing his own well-aged equipment, then authored a second act with Carolina, leading the team to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals.

Myllys wasn’t as lucky - a star in Finland both before and after his NHL time, he won only five out of a career 39 games, playing on bad teams in Minnesota and San Jose.

Other early trend setters were Karri Takko of Finland, playing in 142 games with Minnesota and Edmonton, winning 37. Pauli Jaks of Switzerland appeared in 40 minutes of a game for Los Angeles in 1994-95, allowing two goals and making 23 saves.

The struggle of these early tenders helped pave the way for future stars such as Dominik Hasek and Roman Turek of Czechia, Nikolai Khabibulin of Russia, Olaf Kolzig from Germany and Tommy Salo from Sweden.

532- Arturs Irbe

A goaltender, Irbe was drafted 196th overall by Minnesota in 1989. Irbe had played three seasons with Dynamo Riga in his home country of Latvia, and had significant international experience with the Soviet Union, winning gold at the 1989 and 1990 World Championships, also winning best goalie at the 1990 tournament. Following the suppression of the Latvian independence movement in the early 1990s, Irbe would refuse to represent the Soviet Union.

In May 1991 Irbe was selected by San Jose in the dispersal draft of the North Stars, and subsequently came to North America for the 1991-92 season. He starred with Kansas City in the IHL, posting a 24-7-1 record and led the league in goals against average. He was named a first team all-star and helped guide the Blades to the Turner Cup. Irbe also appeared in 13 games with the Sharks, posting a 2-6-3 record.

The following season Irbe became Jeff Hackett’s backup in San Jose, suffering a 7-26-0 record on one of the worst teams in NHL history. 1993-94 was Irbe’s breakout season, leading the NHL in games played (74) and minutes (4412) while posting a 30-28-16 record, 2.48 goals against and .899 save percentage. The Sharks finished third in the Pacific Division and upset Detroit in the Western Conference Semi-Finals before losing to Toronto in the Semi-Finals in seven games. Irbe played in all but 40 minutes of the playoffs, and finished fifth in Vezina and post-season all-star voting.

1993-94 was the highpoint of Irbe’s time in San Jose, as he would play in only 22 games during the 1995-96 season after having his hand mauled by his dog. In the summer of 1996 he signed with Dallas as a free agent, winning 17 games, before joining Vancouver in 1997-98, playing in 41 games.

Irbe’s career was resurrected when he signed with Carolina for the 1998-99 season, immediately becoming the Canes starter. In his first season he appeared in the all-star game, finish fourth in the league in save percentage (.923) and eighth in goals against (2.22). In his first three seasons he posted win totals of 27, 34 and 37, while leading the league in games played in 1999-00 & 2000-01. During the 2000-01 season Irbe also led the league in saves, shots against and minutes. 

Irbe led the Hurricanes to the 2002 Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit, posting a 10-8 record, 1.67 goals against and .938 save percentage. During the regular season he split the crease with Tom Barrasso, but was able to take control after Barrasso was traded to Toronto at the trade deadline.

Much like in San Jose, Irbe’s star quickly fell in Carolina, as he lost his starter’s position to Kevin Weekes, playing in only 44 games over the next two seasons. After refusing a trade he was demoted to the ECHL and in June 2004 was traded to Columbus, but never again played in the NHL.

In 13 NHL seasons Irbe played in 568 games, posting a 218-236-79 record, .899 save percentage and 2.83 goals against. Following his NHL career he played pro in Latvia, and represented his country at 2005 World Championships and 2006 Olympics, where he was the country’s flag bearer during the opening ceremonies.

Irbe returned to the NHL as a coach, with Washington (2009-2011) and Buffalo (2014-15), and has also coached pro in Latvia. Since 2022 he has been the goalie coach for the Latvian national team. Irbe was elected to the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2009. 

YouTube clip: two and half minutes of career highlights, featuring many unorthodox and acrobatic saves that you don’t see anymore from today's 'technically sound' goalies.

533 - Mark Osiecki

A defenceman, Osiecki was drafted 187th overall by Calgary in 1987. Following the draft he played three seasons of college hockey with Wisconsin before turning pro in 1990 with Salt Lake City of the IHL.

Osiecki made his NHL debut in the 1991-92 season, playing in 50 games with Calgary, scoring two goals and nine points. In June 1992 he was traded to Ottawa for Chris Lindberg and played in 34 games with the Senators, recording four assists and a -21 rating. Late in the season Osiecki was claimed off waivers by Winnipeg, playing in four games with the Jets before a trade to Minnesota with a 10th round pick for a 9th round pick. Osiecki played five games with the North Stars, his final NHL games.

Osiecki retired from pro hockey following the 1994-95 season, which he split between Detroit and Minnesota in the IHL. In two NHL seasons he played in 93 games, scoring three goals and 11 points. Shortly after retiring he joined the coaching ranks, first as an assistant with the University of North Dakota during the 1996-97 season. From 1997 to 2004 Osiecki was the general manager and head coach for Green Bay in the USHL. In 2005 he joined his alma mater Wisconsin as an assistant coach, winning a national title in 2006. In 2010 Osiecki left Wisconsin to coach Ohio State for three seasons, then spent time with Rockford in the AHL as an assistant coach before rejoining the Badgers in 2016. In 2023 Osiecki joined Pittsburgh as a pro scout. He has also been involved in international hockey with the United States’ world juniors squad, three times as an assistant and once (2014) as head coach.

YouTube clip: there are only three clips of Osiecki from his playing days on YouTube, and all three  feature him getting rocked by Winnipeg Jets. First, a hit to the head from Paul MacDermid, next getting boarded by John LeBlanc, then getting rocked by an unknown Jet.

534 - Steve Thomas

In September 1991 Thomas was traded with Adam Creighton from the Chicago Blackhawks to the New York Islanders for Brent Sutter and Brad Lauer.

Steve Thomas - played four seasons with Isles, scoring 37 goals and 87 points in 1992-93 and 43 goals and 75 points the following season. During the 1993 playoffs he contributed nine goals and 17 points in 18 games as the Islanders made a surprise run to the Prince of Wales Conference Finals, knocking off the two-time defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins along the way. In October 1995 he was involved in a three way trade that saw Thomas sent to New Jersey, Claude Lemieux to Colorado and Wendel Clark to the Islanders. The impact of this trade would be felt by the Islanders less than a season later when Clark was dealt to Toronto in a six-player trade, which included a first round pick that the Islanders would use to select future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo.

Adam Creighton - played 66 games with Isles, scoring 15 goals and 24 points. He was claimed by Tampa Bay in the 1992 waiver draft.

Brad Lauer - played 13 games with Blackhawks over two seasons, mostly in the minors, where he scored 50 goals in 62 games with Indianapolis Ice of the IHL in 1992-93. He signed with the Sens as a free agent for the 1993-94 season.

Brent Sutter - the Isles legend went on to play his final seven seasons for Hawks, finishing fourth in Selke voting in 1992 and fifth in 1993. Past his offensive prime, Sutter contributed 8 points in 18 games during the Blackhawks’ 1992 run to the Stanley Cup Finals. From 1992-1995 he was coached by older brother Darryl.

Butterfly effect on this one is weird - Isles eventually turned Thomas into a package landed the draft pick used to select Hall of Fame goalie Roberto Luongo. But then Mike Milbury showed up and pissed all over and the Isles would miss the playoffs from 1995 to 2001, and after their Cinderella run to Prince of Wales Conference Finals in 1993, not win a playoff round until 2016. The Blackhawks had more immediate success, making the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992 and Western Conference Finals in 1995.

YouTube clip: enjoy this commercial selling Isles season tickets that features Thomas oddly aiming for the goalie's head instead of, you know, the net.

535 - Vincent Damphousse

As Damphousse’s trade from the 1991-92 season has been previously covered, let’s look at the August 1992 trade that sent Damphousse from Edmonton with a fourth round pick (Adam Wiesel) to Montreal for Shayne Corson, Brent Gilchrist and Vladimir Vujtek.

Vincent Damphousse - played seven seasons with his hometown team in Montreal. In his first season he scored 39 goals and 97 points, adding 11 goals and 23 points in the playoffs as Habs won their 23rd Stanley Cup in franchise history. During his time with the Habs, Damphousse led the team in scoring three times and finished second three times, scoring 90+ points in three seasons. He was in his third season as captain when he was traded in March 1999 to San Jose for three draft picks, with the first round pick used to select Marcel Hossa, Marian’s younger brother.

Adam Wiesel - played two seasons in the AHL before ending his pro career.

Shayne Corson - played three seasons for the Oilers, scoring 25 goals and 54 points in the 1993-94 season. In July 1995 he signed with St. Louis as a free agent.

Brent Gilchrist - played 60 games, scoring 10 goals and 20 points before being traded to Minnesota for Todd Elik. Elik lasted only 18 games with the Oilers before being plucked off waivers by San Jose.

Vladimir Vujtek - played 70 games over two seasons, scoring five goals and 30 points. He spent the entire 1994-95 season in the minors, then returned to Europe before a July 1997 trade sent him to Tampa Bay for Brantt Myhres and a swap of draft picks.

Montreal is the clear winner in this trade. Damphousse was a top liner player during his entire career with the Habs and at one point team captain, which in the 1990s meant he would be unceremoniously run out of town at some point. Only one of the three players acquired by the Oilers played more than a single season equivalency of games, and in the end no real assets were acquired as the team struggled following the end of the Gretzky-Messier dynasty.

YouTube clip: Damphousse scoring in Game 4 of the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals against Los Angeles.

536 - Stephane Richer

The summer 1991 trade of Richer was already covered under Kirk Muller’s entry, so let’s look at the August 1996 trade when Montreal re-acquired Richer for Lyle Odelein.

Stephane Richer - played only 77 games over two seasons in his return to Montreal, scoring 29 goals and 55 points. Richer scored no points in five games during the 1997 playoffs as the Habs were eliminated by the Devils in five games in the Eastern Conference Quarter-Finals. In January 1998 he was traded to Tampa Bay with Darcy Tucker and David Wilkie for Patrick Poulin, Igor Ulanov and Mick Vukota.

Lyle Odelein - played parts of four seasons with the Devils, having some of the best offensive output of career, scoring 31 points in 1999-2000, his second highest career total. In March 2000 he was traded to Phoenix for a third round pick (eventually traded back to Phoenix) and Deron Quint.

Call it a draw. Richer was on the downside of his career and a shadow of his former self, and Odelein did what was expected, being a solid defensive defenceman while also filling an enforcer role.

YouTube clip: press conference from his return to Montreal, focusing on the potential for Richer to revive his scoring ways (he wouldn't).

537 - Jarmo Myllys

A goaltender, Myllys was drafted 172nd overall by Minnesota in 1987. The following season he would win league MVP and best goalie in the Liiga in Finland, along with earning an Olympic silver medal.

Coming to North America with a big reputation, Myllys playing his first two pro seasons primarily with Kalamazoo in the IHL, posting a 31-9-3 record in 1989-90 and being named a second-team all-star. From the 1988-89 to 1990-91 season he appeared in 12 games for the North Stars, posting a 1-9 record and goals against above five.

In May 1991 he was selected by San Jose in the dispersal draft. Playing for the first year Sharks probably made Myllys wish he stayed in Finland; as the back up to Jeff Hackett, Myllys posted a 3-18-1 record, 5.02 goals against and .867 save percentage. In June 1992 he was traded to Toronto, but would never again play in the NHL, returning to Europe to play another decade split between Finland and Sweden.

In four NHL seasons Myllys appeared in 39 games, posting a 4-27-1 record, 5.23 goals against and .829 save percentage. In his post NHL career Myllys would find success both in European leagues and internationally. He won two Swedish league titles, a league MVP and even scored two goals! Representing Finland he won four world championship medals (one gold and three silver), best goalie at the 1995 tournament and an Olympic bronze medal. Myllys was named to the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009. Since 2004 he has coached off and on in the Finnish and Austrian pro leagues, as both an assistant coach and goalie coach.

YouTube clip: recap from a December 1991 game when he surrendered eight goals in a single period against Pittsburgh. 

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