ARLINGTON, Va. - Long before everyone started calling him Archie, long before he became an established goaltender in the NHL, Arturs Irbe was a young Latvian trying to make his name on a strange continent with barely a word of English in his vocabulary.
"I got lucky. I had a friend who played college hockey here in North America and he wrote down the terms - the most important terms - in hockey language: 'breakaway' and 'behind' and 'crease' and 'faceoff' and things like that," Irbe said. "So I had those down. So first time coach was explaining a drill, I already could figure out somewhat what's happening."
Following the end of his playing career and a detour back to Europe to raise his son as a single parent, Irbe has returned to the United States. This time he's an English teacher instead of an English student, a goalie coach instead of a goalie prospect. If solid play in the net is final piece of the puzzle that could make two-time MVP Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals into perennial Stanley Cup contenders, then hiring Irbe might have been the team's most important addition of the off-season.
Irbe is not in Washington to tutor Jose Theodore, the No. 1 goalie entering training camp. Theodore is a 13-year veteran who has won the Hart and Vezina trophies and is looking to prove he still has game after getting benched one game into the playoffs last year.
Even if Theodore shows he can still do the job, he's essentially a caretaker. Irbe is here primarily because of the player who stole the show in the playoffs and earned the inside track as the Capitals goalie-of-the-future: Semyon Varlamov, the fresh-faced 21-year-old from Samara, Russia.
Varlamov arrived at training camp with a new name, a new mask and is working on a new language. He changed the English spelling of his first name from Simeon to Semyon because everyone was mispronouncing it. (It's "sim-YOHN.") The mask features Mount Rushmore, an indication that his understanding of American culture is coming along.
As for the language? Ask most anyone how Varlamov has improved from last season, and the answer usually has nothing to do with any sort of technical goalie skill.
"Already you can tell he's more social with guys and more aware of what's going on," defenceman Mike Green said. "And that's good for us because he's such a good young goalie, and the better we can communicate to each other, the better off we'll be on the ice. I don't think he understood us last year sometimes, what we were saying on the ice. At least he knows some stuff now."
Some stuff, but still not a lot. Varlamov needs an interpreter to conduct interviews, although he sometimes understands the question before it is translated. Dave Prior, the longtime Capitals goaltender coach who retired after last season, had to buy a handheld electronic translator to communicate with the young Russian.
Enter Irbe, who not only speaks Russian but also empathizes with Varlamov's plight.
"It's really great that he speaks Russian," Varlamov said through his interpreter, "because when we speak Russian, sometimes he will slip in an English word here and there, and that's how I learn English well."
While there are other players who can get away without learning the language - Capitals forward Alexander Semin almost seems not to want to try - Irbe says it's a must for goaltenders.
"Communication between goalie and his D-men is crucial," Irbe said. "For the forwards, if they make some tactical mistake, it doesn't mean the red light is on. Goalies' mistakes and miscommunications are always visible to the naked eye."
And it's not just the words Varlamov has to learn. He and the defencemen have to know exactly what they mean.
"On one team, if you say 'wide,' it might mean that there's a wide guy open," Irbe said. "On other team, 'wide' means you just have to move wider. Or the D-men are too wide apart. So you have to really have the whole group on the same page."
Irbe, who broke into the NHL in 1991 with San Jose, said it took him a couple of months to feel comfortable with the language, but he's an exception. Irbe loves languages - he could already speak German and Russian in addition to his native Latvian - and he was a voracious reader who picked up new English words by reading "hockey news or political news, money news ... everything."
Irbe had a 13-year NHL career, highlighted by a run to the Stanley Cup finals with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2002. He went back to Europe after his final NHL season in 2004 and eventually ended up coaching the goaltenders for his hometown Dinamo Riga in Latvia in the Kontinental Hockey League, juggling his professional and personal lives.
"I was single parent for about three years," Irbe said. "I had to look after my son. It was tremendous time. We created great bond. I learned to be not only dad, but mom and nanny at the same time. It's good experience. It's good to appreciate these ladies at home that take care of their children."
Irbe accepted the offer to help with the Capitals, and along with it came a new family arrangement. His 12-year-old son is living with his mother in Raleigh, N.C., close enough to see Dad often.
Meanwhile, the 42-year-old Irbe's adopted hockey son is Varlamov. While excited about the job, Irbe joked he actually might be a hindrance to the development of his pupil's English skills
"I can be good. I can be bad - because I speak Russian," Irbe said. "In a way, he's not forced to learn fast. ... But on the other hand I can be a teacher for him because I can translate, explain and hopefully also teach some ropes of not only goaltending but also what is the lifestyle for a goaltender in the NHL."