Roberto Luongo starts a new chapter
Canucks goaltender one of five competing for number one spot on Team Canada
CALGARY — Kids, you’ll have to ask your parents for verification of this, but there was a time in the dark ages — like, 20 years ago or so — when a hockey team could trade a player, or decline to trade him, without consulting him.
That time, which the owners refer to as “the good old days,” is so far in the rear-view mirror, it has little or no relevance to the modern era, and is only brought up here because of the extraordinary lengths to which the Vancouver Canucks’ top brass have gone to mollify Roberto Luongo.
Has it done the trick?
Will he be a happy camper when he gets back to Vancouver, or will he be playing under protest?
“I don’t think it matters,” the 34-year-old goalie said Sunday at Hockey Canada’s headquarters in Canada Olympic Park, when he was one of five veterans of the 2010 Olympic gold medal team selected to speak to the media at the 2014 orientation camp for prospective members of the Sochi Olympic squad.
“I’m happy to be playing and being a starter, that’s what matters for now, and that’s what I’m focused on. At the end of the day, that’s all you really need, right?”
Call it a lukewarm endorsement.
What a player like Luongo really needed — and didn’t get — was the fulfilment, by the Canucks, of a pledge to give him a fresh start elsewhere after they determined that Cory Schneider was their goaltender of the future.
In this, GM Mike Gillis failed abysmally.
It wasn’t all his fault. The new CBA, which saddled teams with their salary-cap-evading, long-term deals like Luongo’s 12-year, $64-million monstrosity, made it impossible to unload a goaltender who’d still be somebody’s burden at age 43.
But Gillis’s belief, that he only needed to wait longer and someone would get desperate enough to take on Luongo’s terms, backfired and in the end he was left with little option but to take what he could get for the goalie he could trade: Schneider, to New Jersey, for a first-round draft pick.
So if Luongo was feeling betrayed, he had pretty good reason.
He stayed mum about the whole thing until taping a three-part interview with TSN’s James Duthie that aired on the weekend, and wasn’t much more forthcoming Sunday, but he did admit that during the lowest points of last season, the thought occurred to him that he might have fallen off the radar for the Olympic team.
Not too many backups make it to the five-ring circus.
“I was a backup last year, so you know, you start to wonder certain things,” he said Sunday. “But I obviously knew the first half of this season was going to be really important, so that’s what I kept telling myself in the back of my mind, and not to think too much about it, and that things will sort themselves out and I’d have another opportunity to re-establish myself.”
He didn’t think it would be in Vancouver.
And yet, with all that’s gone on, Luongo probably still enters this season with the inside track on the starting job for the Olympic team. Believe it or not, and maybe it’s a sad commentary on the lack of superior candidates, but he could be the guy between the pipes come February.
“I just think we’re going to watch,” said head coach Mike Babcock, who doesn’t get to see his players on the ice this week, but will be paying close attention to what happens with Luongo, Carey Price, Corey Crawford, Braden Holtby and Mike Smith — and probably a couple of other suspects — in the months leading up to the new year.
“What Lou has going for him is that he’s won in the past. I’ve been with him twice — at world championships in 2004, and in 2010 — and he wins every time,” Babcock said. “So he’s got that confidence in himself and he’s been through a tumultuous time and I thought handled it with extreme class and professionalism. That’s got to make him feel good about who he is, and I’m actually proud of him the way he’s handled himself. He’s been fantastic. But he’s here like everyone else, you want to get off to a good start if you’re a goaltender.”
Even Sidney Crosby, who’s been through a series of stern tests of character the past few years, marvels at what Luongo has faced.
“I can’t relate to his situation at all, but I can relate to adversity and learning from it, and it’s hard to see at the time, but eventually you’re a lot better off for having gone through it,” Crosby said.
“I feel for him having to answer these questions, I’m sure it’s not something he wants to talk about ... I was pretty surprised, as were a lot of people (by the Schneider trade) but it’s just something as a professional you have to deal with and there’s no real way to teach that. It’s just experience.”
Luongo’s journey back to the top won’t be easy. He knows it.
“I think it’s not anybody’s (Olympic) job to win or lose, I think it’s an open competition and whoever plays best deserves to be the starter,” he said. “That’s how I see it, you work hard and you want to be rewarded for your efforts, and if I’m going to be there, I want to have deserved it.”
He’s just happy to be talking, mostly at least, about hockey again.
“Yeah, I mean listen, you go through stuff throughout your life and your career, and you try to learn from them, you try to get stronger from them, and I think over the course of the last year I’ve been through a few things, and hopefully got some experience out of it, made me a better player, a better person,” he said.
“So, right now, I just want to play hockey, doesn’t matter where it is. I’m happy to be starting again, and I want to focus on playing hockey and being ready.”
If he makes it to Sochi, it will almost make his months of mental anguish worthwhile.
Canucks’ ownership and management alike recognized that he was bound to be extra sour at news that he would have to stay at least one more year in Vancouver and serve out a fourth year of confinement in his expensive prison cell — of which $6,714,000 is payable this season ($5.33 million of which the team will wear on its salary cap).
So off went Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini to Florida to sit with Luongo during the June entry draft, arriving barely in time to talk him off the ledge as the Canucks were announcing that they were indeed trading a goaltender, just not him.
Gillis and his new head coach, John Tortorella, have been equally solicitous during Luongo’s shock-recovery period, wanting to be very sure that the key to their hockey season isn’t going to show up with a long face — longer than usual, anyway — and a “screw you” attitude when training camp starts next month.
His comments to Duthie on that score were not terribly reassuring. He still sounded Sunday a little like a prisoner angling to get time off for good behaviour.
Of course, it’s really the only course open to him.
Self-interest plays into this, too. He can only re-establish himself as a bona fide No. 1 goalie by playing well for the Canucks. But if he does, and especially if he makes the Olympic team, he will be able to rewrite the word “elite” into his resume.
And if it has to happen in Vancouver, so be it.
“It’s not that I wanted out of Vancouver so bad. We all saw what happened, for the last few years, and ... I just felt it was time to move on. That’s it,” he said Sunday.
And from here on in, he will bite the bullet.
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