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 Abbotsford Canucks

Christian Wolanin & Matt Irwin Help Lead Youngest Team in AHL Toward Playoff Run

April 15, 2024 - American Hockey League (AHL)
Abbotsford Canucks News Release

The Abbotsford Canucks are once again playoff-bound and have a combination of youth and experience to feel good about what this group can do in a chase for the Calder Cup.

Abbotsford is the youngest team in the AHL with an average age of 23.75 but they have the support of veteran leaders like John Stevens, Matt Irwin, Sheldon Dries, and Christian Wolanin.

Irwin is the only player in his 30s on the Abbotsford roster and the 36-year-old certainly had to catch himself laughing this season when Sawyer Mynio joined the group and Irwin could say that he was literally twice the age of one of his teammates.

"It's hilarious to me," said Irwin with a hearty guffaw. "I was graduating high school when Sawyer was born. So, that doesn't make me feel old at all."

Many of the players look up to Irwin for advice and as a guide on how to keep it light in the room but continue to stay focused. The joke around the Abbotsford room is that Irwin is one of the youngest players on the team because he is like a kid out there with how much fun he is having.

The guys in the room love being able to hear stories from Irwin, who has played in 461 NHL games along with his 311 in the AHL. On top of the stories, Irwin brings a calming presence to every moment on the ice or away from it. This year has been a rollercoaster for the Canucks, and they have learned a lot about battling through adversity.

"You don't go through a full season at any level without some ups and downs and I think there's benefits of going through those stretches throughout a season," said Irwin. "There's a learning curve and an opportunity to grow as a group when you go through those ups and downs. And we have certainly done that this year."

At Irwin's age, he does not take anything for granted. He knows he is fortunate to play the game of hockey for as long as he has and is happy to be a part of this young group in Abbotsford who have elevated expectations in the upcoming playoffs.

Irwin claims he is not going into the room with intentions of preaching to the young players but does admit to actively being a sounding board for the young players including some of the young leaders like Jett Woo and Abbotsford captain Chase Wouters.

"I enjoy helping these young players develop," said Irwin. "If they have questions, I like to help them. They are teaching me lots of things too and what I try to always tell them is to enjoy the game and embrace the work."

Christian Wolanin is another veteran leader of the group who plays on the backend. Wolanin was named AHL defenceman of the year last season and though he battled an injury that kept him out of the lineup for two and half months, his presence in the lineup and locker room is something that his teammates welcome with open arms.

Wolanin enjoys the chance to play with such a young group and it has helped him learn a lesson about how the world of professional hockey evolves so quickly. His approach to leadership is being as honest as he can with the young players who have yet to experience a lot in pro hockey.

"I'm a pretty high-strung, emotional guy," said Wolanin. "I am not afraid to say whatever is on my mind. And for me, I think it's good to be honest at this point of the year. It's good to be honest about how you're feeling. I'll be the first one to tell the guys when we get down to it that I'm nervous too. But we are all human and you're supposed to be nervous because it shows that we care."

The 29-year-old Wolanin views this next stretch of the year as a massively important one for the young players. He looks back at his first few years as a pro and can share the lessons he has learned about how every season that has success is a gift from all the work you have put in and you need to live in those moments and appreciate what is happening around you.

Wolanin sees the Abbotsford organization as a wonderful place for young players to learn about the demands and expectations of pro hockey.

"We have a good culture built here and everybody who comes in is welcomed and feels part of it," said Wolanin. "This experience for them, and their individual journey, it's nice for the young guys to just get these touches. Especially if they are going to play in the playoffs. You'll really see how bad you want it when you play in an American League playoff game. It's an intense environment and a great test."

Each of Irwin and Wolanin do not view this time of the year as a spot where they need to do more for the group but instead, just want to be able to carry more of the load when challenging situations present themselves to the group.

Wolanin spoke about hockey cliches being something that, though it is boring to talk about, are most important at this time of the year.

Irwin is on the same page as Wolanin as to what he wants to do as a veteran at this time of the year.

"I'm not sure there's anything that you want to do more, I think you just relay that message about by the way you prepare and how you compete in games at this time of the year," said Irwin. "Understanding the in-game situations of blocking a shot, taking a hit to make a play, those things are what speak volumes to others or throughout the locker room rather than just words. So, for us as veterans and guys that have been around or played playoff games, whether it is at any level really. It's just more or less leading by example."

The Abbotsford Canucks close out their season next weekend with a pair of home games against the team that eliminated them from the playoffs last year, the Calgary Wranglers.

A large amount of the roster that lost that second-round playoff series is back this season and has gained experience of what the AHL playoffs are all about.

As the youngest team in the AHL, the Abbotsford Canucks continue to be in development mode. Still, with so many players losing their greenness in the AHL, the expectations inside that locker room continue to rise and the veterans' experience helps them recognize that this team is coming together to be a contender in the AHL playoffs.

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