Luongo looks to lift the curse

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The Canucks’ new goalie has swagger, but it won’t look like boasting if he delivers elite-level play

Dave Nonis probably didn’t realize it at the time, but when the general manager of the Vancouver Canucks acquired Roberto Luongo in June, he didn’t just get a good goalie. He also gained a huge advantage on every opponent the Canucks will face this season and for years to come. That’s because Luongo, although just 27 years old and only six years into his NHL career, is already messing with the heads of other teams and other players.

“He’s very good,” says Rory Fitzpatrick, who signed with the Canucks as a free agent this summer after spending the past four years in Buffalo and getting to know Luongo well as an Eastern Conference foe. “Every time we’d go into Florida, that was the main topic: you know you’ve got to beat Roberto and you’re not going to beat him on your first shot. You have to get people in front, and it’s going to be a second or third shot that you’re going to score on. He’s a big guy and covers a lot of space, and he’s one of the top goalies in the league, and I think the people of Vancouver are really going to like watching him play. And I know as a defenceman, I’m loving that he’s here.”

Fitzpatrick—talking, along with other players and Canuck management, to the Georgia Straight recently at training camp in Vernon—surely won’t be alone, playing with added confidence knowing that one of the world’s best netminders is there to bail him out. And it’s not just the blueliners who will benefit from Luongo’s presence. With the departures of Todd Bertuzzi and Anson Carter, there are questions about the Vancouver hockey club’s ability to score goals this season. But simple math tells you that if your team isn’t getting scored on as often as it has in the past, you won’t need as many goals to win.

“I think it changes your mindset a little bit,” veteran centre Brendan Morrison says. “Clouts [Dan Cloutier] was an extremely competitive guy, and when he was on his game and playing his best, he gave us a chance to win every night. I think with Roberto that’s magnified just because he has the ability to steal a game every night, and there are few goalies who can do that. I think having him back there is going to provide the rest of the team with a little more confidence. He’s intimidating simply because when you look at him in the net, there isn’t a lot of net to shoot at. I think he gets in the head of opposing shooters and gives us a leg up right away.”

With all the praise that gets thrown his way, it would be easy to believe that Luongo might have trouble stuffing his swelled head into his goalie mask. There is a swagger about him, to be sure, but it brings to mind the old Dizzy Dean baseball quote: “It ain’t bragging if you can back it up.”

And Luongo can back it up.

On a bad Florida Panthers team last season, the 6-3, 180-pound Montreal native led the National Hockey League in games played among goalies (75), shots faced (2,488), and saves made (2,275), and he was in the top 10 in wins (35), shutouts (4), and save percentage (91.4%). Four times last season, Luongo made 40 or more saves in leading his team to victory, and in 24 of his 35 wins he was forced to make 30 or more saves. His crowning achievement came on December 18, 2005, when he made 53 saves and single-handedly led Florida to a 3–2 win over Washington.

The guy can play—and he knows it.

“If you don’t play with confidence, your game is going to suffer,” Luongo, the odds-on favourite to be the starter for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics, told the Straight in a lengthy and wide-ranging interview in Vernon. “I don’t think I’m someone who’s arrogant at all. I know what I can do and I work very hard for it. It [all the shots he faced in Florida] wasn’t the best situation to be in. If I wasn’t at the top of my game every night, basically we knew we didn’t have a chance to win. But, in a way, it was kind of good for me to know that I had to be at the top of my game every night, and it kind of forced me to challenge myself night after night. I think it really improved the mental side of my game a lot.”

Now, as he plays on a Canadian team and in a hockey-mad market for the first time in his career, Luongo will have to prove that the mental side of his game is equal to his on-ice skills. The Canucks not only gave up a lot (Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan Allen, and Alex Auld) to get him, they then turned around days later and gave him the long-term, big-money contract he wasn’t able to get in Florida. So as he begins to earn his US$27 million over the next four years, Luongo knows everything he does and everything he says will be analyzed and scrutinized by the fans and media.

“It’s part of the job,” he says. “I’ve dealt with it when I was part of Team Canada and we had it every day. It’s something that comes with the territory, and when you know what to expect, it’s not a big deal. I’ve already been asked about the ”˜goalie-graveyard’ thing about 10 times, and that’s part of the past. I know guys want to bring stuff like that up, but it’s time to put it to rest and move on. I think everyone knows what I’m capable of and I know what I’m capable of doing, so there’s no reason to bring that subject up.”

The Canucks made the trade to acquire Luongo to erase the memories of the 18 guys who’ve played goal here since Kirk McLean left town in 1998. Luongo and his backup (whether it’s Wade Flaherty or someone else) will make it 20 goalies to wear a Canucks uniform in the past eight seasons. To put that in context, with Martin Brodeur as their starter and backbone, the New Jersey Devils have used seven goalies in that same time span and won a pair of Stanley Cups. There’s something to be said about stability in goal.

“You know that you have a piece of the puzzle that you can build from, and that’s what we talked about when Roberto became available to us,” says Canucks assistant general manager Steve Tambellini, who had firsthand knowledge of Luongo’s ability from time spent together with Canada’s 2004 World Cup team and the 2006 Olympic squad. “The decision was made quite quickly that we were going to do what it takes to get this piece in our organization. We’ve told Roberto that we’re going to work with him and build this team from him out. So our job is to make sure that we have the right supporting crew, because we know we’ve seen him in action, we’ve seen him in pressure, we’ve seen him come in and back up Marty Brodeur and win in international play. He’s won gold medals; he’s been in World Juniors. Now his goal is that he wants to be in the National Hockey League playoffs.”

That is, really, the last knock remaining on Luongo. Six years in the NHL and he has yet to suit up for a postseason game. Certainly he didn’t stand a chance as a rookie on a terrible New York Islanders team back in the spring of 2000. But in five years in Florida, despite his best efforts, Luongo wasn’t able to lead the Panthers to the promised land. He’s here now, though, and ready, he says, to do whatever is needed to get the Canucks back to the playoffs. And even though he doesn’t have NHL playoff experience on his otherwise impressive hockey résumé, Luongo is convinced he’ll be ready for the rigours of a postseason ride.

“There wasn’t any more pressure situation that I’ve been involved in than the World Cup when I hadn’t played a game and then got thrown in the semifinal. So I’ve played in high-pressure games. Unfortunately, I haven’t played in any playoff games, but that shouldn’t be looked at as something that is solely my fault,” he says of the five consecutive Florida flops. “It’s a team game, and you need 20 players on the ice to get there.”

It was the Panthers’ inability to reach the playoffs, combined with a volatile front-office situation, that led to the end of the line for Luongo in Florida, where he and wife Gina had just built a house. Attempts to sign a long-term contract extension proved fruitless, and on the eve of the June draft, with the hockey world here in Vancouver, Mike Keenan stole the spotlight by dealing Luongo to the Canucks in the biggest trade of 2006. To this day, Luongo claims to have no ill will toward Keenan, but he says he didn’t think Iron Mike would move him so quickly.

“It was a shock at the beginning, but in the end I think it’s a good move for my career. It’s a great hockey city, and I think we’ll have a great team here and it’s a great organization, so I think it’s a step in the right direction for my career,” says Luongo, who’s been traded once before in his career. But that was back in his bachelor days, and this move, he admits, didn’t sit all that well with his wife of two years, a lifelong Florida resident.

“It was hard. She’s never left home, not even for college or anything like that. She’s always been around her family, and she’s close to her family, so it was something that was hard for her at the beginning. Now she’s getting used to the fact that she’s going to leave, and she’ll be able to go back to Florida whenever she wants,” he says. “It’s a bit like Jovo’s wife [Ed Jovanonovski’s wife, Kirstin] used to do when she was here. She’s going to have a lot of family come visit, so it’s going to take some time to get used to, but we’re going to try to surround her and get her used to the fact that she’s not at home anymore. You know, we’re going to ease into it slowly.”

The Luongos are settling into a Yaletown condo that will serve as home base during the hockey season, but they’ll head for Florida as soon as the year is done. And although he’s busy with hockey’s hectic schedule throughout the winter, the Canuck netminder and his wife will find time to take in the latest movies, one of the things Luongo does to unwind and something the couple enjoys doing together.

“Also, in my spare time, I like to play on-line poker—but only when my wife’s not around,” Luongo says with a laugh. (He also claims to have kicked a nasty habit earlier in his career of watching Days of Our Lives as part of his game-day routine.)

Blessed with talent few others have on the ice, Luongo can also say something only a handful of other plays can, and he can say it three different ways. Where many of his colleagues have enough trouble with one language, Luongo is fluent in three: English, French, and Italian. And he makes no secret of the fact that all are important parts of who he is as a person.

“When I was a kid, my dad strictly spoke only Italian, so when my dad was around we spoke Italian, and with my mom it was English mostly with a little bit of French,” he says. “Then I went to French school growing up, so it was a bit of everything—mostly English and Italian when I was a kid and then when I started school, French kind of took over. Whenever I go back home to Montreal, it’s still the same: when my dad’s there, we speak Italian, and when my dad’s not around, with my brothers or my mom, it’s a bit of English or French, a word here and a word there in each language. It’s important to me. I grew up with all those languages and I want to keep them.”

Luongo is the oldest of three brothers, all of whom played goal. Although 22-year-old Leo didn’t last in net, 20-year-old Fabio did his best to follow Roberto. In fact, Fabio was the first Luongo to spend time in this province, playing the 2004–05 season for the Williams Lake Timberwolves of the British Columbia Hockey League in pursuit of his dream that has now faded away due to injuries.

Roberto started his hockey career as a forward and played centre until he was 12. And for a kid growing up in Montreal, with so many good French-Canadian netminders to emulate, Luongo wasn’t drawn to the position by Patrick Roy, as so many of his peers have been. No, Luongo says he was fascinated by the performance of Grant Fuhr during the Oilers heyday in Edmonton.

“He was my idol and he’s the reason I became a goaltender,” he explains. “I watched him on TV, and those great glove saves is what really attracted me to be a goalie in the first place. You know, watching him as a kid, I was always in amazement.”

Now it’s Roberto Luongo that 12-year-olds are amazed by and trying to be like. But in order for them to be like their hero, kids playing the position have to be durable— extremely durable. Luongo has been a workhorse the past three NHL seasons, playing no fewer than 65 games per season. From December 10 of last year through March 15, Luongo appeared in 35 consecutive games for Florida, winning 17 of them and tying five others. And although no exact number of games has been determined for the upcoming season here in Vancouver, Luongo wants and expects the heavy workload to continue. Judging by training-camp chatter, it sounds like Luongo will play in the neighbourhood of 70 games this season.

“I know a lot of people expect a lot out of me, and that’s great, because I expect a lot out of myself and I’m my biggest critic,” says Luongo, who points to his height and his glove hand as his strengths and who admits that puck-handling is an area he continues to work on. “For me, I want to go out there and perform every night and give this team a chance to win every night. Anything short of that is going to be disappointing for myself, and you’ll see it on nights after games when things didn’t go maybe the way I wanted them to for myself, you’ll see that I’m not very happy with myself. I’m a very competitive person, and I want to be at 100 percent every night.”

That cheering you heard the night the Canucks acquired Luongo wasn’t just from his new teammates or hockey fans in Vancouver—the entire Eastern Conference was thrilled to see him go.

“As an organization, we’re pretty happy to see him out of the division,” Atlanta Thrashers head coach Bob Hartley was quoted as saying at the time of the deal. “No disrespect to Todd Bertuzzi, but he only plays 20 minutes per game and Roberto Luongo plays 60 minutes.”

So it seems that although the Canucks addressed one of their biggest needs with the off-season addition of Roberto Luongo, they also gained a whole lot more than just a goalie in that trade. Not only do the Canucks’ Western Conference foes now have to deal with the reason for Hartley’s happiness, but Vancouver has a guy they’re counting on to be the difference on many nights for many seasons.

And they’ll start finding out for sure on October 5 in Detroit.

Jeff Paterson is a sportscaster and talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio, Team 1040.