Ask 10 people to name the three goalies they would choose for Canada at next February’s Olympics in Sochi, and you’d very likely get 10 different combinations. And with just seven months until the puck drops, the matter only gets murkier when trying to figure out who should get the nod to be this country’s starter.
It makes for great debates over beers in bars and at backyard barbeques from coast to coast, even in the middle of a long, hot summer. And although plenty remains uncertain about the most important position on the team, this much is clear: Roberto Luongo most certainly wants the job he had here in Vancouver three-and-a-half years ago, when he backstopped Canada to the gold medal in dramatic fashion.
Although Luongo has gone into a self-imposed off-season silence when it comes to his return to the Canucks, the 34-year-old left absolutely no doubt about his desire to don his country’s colours the last time he spoke to the media.
“I’m really excited about that,” Luongo told the Georgia Straight at Rogers Arena days after the Canucks had been eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs. “As you know, it was an unbelievable experience in 2010, and I’m looking forward, hopefully, to being part of the team and going at it again.”
While the discussion rages on, the battle for the job will begin in earnest at Hockey Canada’s Olympic summer camp next month in Calgary.
Luongo certainly merits strong consideration as the starter on the Canadian team in Sochi. Not only was he between the pipes the last time Team Canada skated on Olympic ice, but there doesn’t appear to be anyone who has played his way past Luongo on this country’s depth chart. There are lots of guys who have put themselves in the discussion with their performances, but no one has muscled their way past Luongo yet.
Montreal’s Carey Price will get a long look by the Hockey Canada brain trust and coaching staff, while Corey Crawford’s performance as part of Chicago’s Stanley Cup win this spring certainly has his stock on the rise.
Beyond that, it’s Marc-André Fleury, Cam Ward, Mike Smith, and possibly even Martin Brodeur, who’ll be nearing his 42nd birthday by the time Sochi rolls around. Ward and Smith both do a solid, but not spectacular, job for their NHL teams (the Carolina Hurricanes and Phoenix Coyotes), and it’s possible that one or both could make Team Canada, but not likely as the starter. After a second straight playoff meltdown, there isn’t a person in this country who would actually trust Canada’s crease on the biggest stage in the world to the fragile Fleury. And Brodeur is, without question, a legend, but at this stage of his glorious career, he’s no longer one of the top three Canadian goalies in the game.
So that swings the argument back in Luongo’s favour. He’s been there. He’s done that. He has the gold medal to prove it. As long as the NHL continues to send its players to the Olympics after the Sochi games, Price and Crawford will likely get their chance to shine: Crawford is 28, and Price just a pup at 25. But as for next year, Luongo appears to be this country’s best bet.
Now, that supposes he will return to the Canucks in the right frame of mind and embrace the fact he is once again the starter here. And not only has the crowded crease been cleared with the draft-day deal of Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils, the Canucks appear ready to proceed with an unproven backup, which means Luongo is likely to be leaned on for much of the early part of the season ahead.
That should give him plenty of opportunity to work on his game in the lead-up to Sochi, and Luongo’s track record has shown that the busier he is, the better he plays. A motivated Luongo trying to play his way into the starter’s job on the Olympic team could be very good news for the Canucks and might be trouble for the rest of the NHL.
There was some thought that Luongo might not be enamoured with the idea of packing up and heading halfway around the world for a two-week stay in Russia in the dead of the winter. And given that Luongo has chosen to make Florida his off-season home, you could understand if he wanted to spend his Olympic break having some fun in the sun with his young family instead. Tack on the fact that there is no way to top what he accomplished in 2010—winning the gold medal not only on home soil but in front of his fans in his adopted hometown—and it’s fair to suggest Luongo might be content to leave that as his Olympic legacy.
But the goalie insists that the fire burns deep inside to add more gold to his personal total and to this country’s collection.
“Without a doubt,” he says emphatically. “It’s the Olympics, and it only comes around every four years, and it’s the best athletes in the world. And I’m not just talking about hockey; I’m talking about everything. And that’s what makes it a unique and fun situation to be part of. There’s nothing more that I want than to be part of that team.”
Until he speaks publicly again, Luongo’s feelings about the goaltending situation with the Canucks remain a mystery to the hockey world. But he has made his intentions about being part of Team Canada abundantly clear. And if his performance speaks loudly once the season begins, Luongo should be front and centre when the Sochi Olympics roll around in February.