Irbe was among the first wave of players from Communist countries who were finally allowed to leave their homeland to play in the NHL. He was drafted 196th overall by the Minnesota North Stars in 1989, testament to the team's belief that he might never see North America. Indeed, it was not until two years later that he left Dynamo Riga to play for the San Jose Sharks, which had selected him in the Dispersal Draft of 1991. He had been with Riga for five years, from Rookie-of-the-Year to number one goalie, but when the 24-year-old reached the NHL he knew he had made the big time.
The Sharks were an expansion team, and Irbe spent most of his first year with Kansas City in the IHL, coached by eventual San Jose coach Kevin Constantine. By 1993-94, Irbe was the number one goalie with the NHL team and his impact on the team was unquestionable. He played a then record 74 games and 4412 minutes and led the team to an improbable run in the playoffs. They eliminated the Cup contending Detroit Red Wings in game seven right at the Joe Louis Arena, and in the next round took Toronto to seven games before losing in overtime at Maple Leaf Gardens.
The summer of 1994 saw near tragedy visit Irbe. Back home in Riga he was doing sit-ups one day next to his sleeping dog. At one point he nudged the animal, which woke up and went berserk, tearing and ravaging Irbe's hands and forcing him to go to the hospital. He suffered extensive damage to the tendons and nerves in his hands, and his career was threatened.
The lockout gave him a greater opportunity to recover, but even six months later he still had trouble gripping his stick. His confidence began to wane and of course his play suffered as a result. The playoff performances against Detroit and Toronto in 1993 were to be the best Irbe would do with San Jose. The team faded in the next two years, and his weaknesses were beginning to overshadow his strengths. He was a small goalie who relied on quickness and agility, and these were qualities all his coaches recognized.
A free agent, he signed with the Dallas Stars for 1996-97, but when the Stars pursued Ed Belfour he was let go. After another middling year with Vancouver playing behind Garth Snow, he signed with Carolina and his career underwent an impressive resurgence. He had an impressive 27-20-12 record in 1998-99 and led the team to a division championship before losing to Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
Internationally, Irbe was one of the main reasons Latvia earned a promotion from "B" pool of the World Championships in 1996 to "A" pool in 1997 . Upon being promoted to the "A" pool in 1997, Irbe has gone on to represent his homeland at the 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2004 and 2005 World Championships and saw his first Olympic action for Latvia in Salt Lake City in 2002.
Irbe has gone on to play six seasons with Carolina and was instrumental in leading the team to their first Stanley Cup appearance in 2002, only fall to the Detroit Red Wings. In 2002-03 Irbe and the Canes' were unable to repeat their exploits from the previous year and he would play only 34 games during the season while also suiting up for the AHL's Lowell Lock Monsters after he cleared waivers midway through the season. Entering his sixth season with the franchise in 2003-04, Irbe split the year with ECHL's Johnstown Chiefs and Carolina, before being acquired by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the summer of 2004.