1 Last Chapter: An essay on why it’s time for the Canucks to retire Roberto Luongo’s jersey
Photo credit:Vancouver Canucks on Twitter
4 months ago
When Roberto Luongo was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, it crossed off the biggest accolade a hockey player can earn to honour their career. And it leaves just one important milestone left.
Luongo’s call to the Hall was never in doubt. He sits in the NHL’s top ten in games played, wins and shutouts. He won two Olympic gold medals. At his peak, he was one of, if not the best goaltender on the planet.
Luongo’s career was defined by two teams. One is the Florida Panthers, where he spent 11 of his 19 seasons and became their franchise leader in games played, wins, and shutouts. The Panthers retired his No. 1 jersey in March 2020.
The other is the Canucks. Luongo’s eight seasons in Vancouver were the pinnacle of his career. He set franchise marks in wins and shutouts that have yet to be matched by a Canucks netminder. It was here that he graduated from an elite goaltender to an NHL superstar.
Luongo himself said as much during his Hall of Fame acceptance speech.
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“I had my best moments in Vancouver. I got to a Stanley Cup Final. I got to appreciate things more during the difficult times. They demanded a lot of me, and I expected a lot of myself. They helped push me to be a better player and most importantly, a better person.”
And yet, the Canucks have officially left his No. 1 jersey in circulation, although no one has chosen to wear it since. Aside from the December 1st ceremony to honour the Sedins and Luongo for entering the Hall of Fame, the team has been silent on any plans for honouring Luongo in the three years since his retirement in 2019. This could have been due to the cap recapture penalty his retirement triggered for Vancouver or lingering hurt feelings that culminated in his trade back to Florida in 2014.
With all of those hurdles a distant memory, it’s time for the Canucks to correct history and retire Roberto Luongo’s jersey.
Luongo’s Hall of Fame induction has opened the floodgates to all the great memories from his time as a Canuck. It’s easy to forget what kind of a team he inherited when he arrived, and even easier to forget how immediately great he was.
In 2006, the Canucks had just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2000, a span during which they only won a single postseason series. More importantly, they had spent the last decade as a “goalie graveyard”, where a parade of mediocre goaltenders stepped up each season to try and pull the Sword of Kirk McLean out of a boulder.
In Florida, Luongo had experienced the exact opposite. Despite posting incredible numbers every season, the Panthers’ lack of skill up front kept him from suiting up in a single playoff game.
Luongo instantly altered the Canucks’ course forever. His first year in Vancouver was a legendary 47-win campaign, tying Bernie Parent’s 33-year-old record for most wins in a season, and propelling the Canucks to their first of six Northwest Division titles in seven years. Despite his incredible play, Luongo was robbed by the NHL Awards voters when the league’s GMs voted Martin Brodeur for the Vezina Trophy, thanks to him breaking Parent’s record by one win while shielded behind a far better Devils defence. Luongo also finished second only to Sidney Crosby in voting for the Hart Trophy.
But his true status as a Canucks superstar was born in his playoff debut against the Dallas Stars. In Game 1 Luongo made up for lost time with a 72-save performance that led the Canucks to a 5-4 quadruple-overtime win. That night was also the NHL’s official introduction to the ‘Luuuuuuuu’ chants — an iconic phrase that would follow Luongo for the rest of his career.
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From then on, Luongo’s value to the Canucks only grew. He routinely started 60+ games a year when healthy. His jerseys flew off the shelves at the Canucks Store. He even received a monument to his success: a giant poster overlooking traffic on the Dunsmuir Viaduct.
Luongo’s likeness on the Rogers Arena exterior in 2009. Courtesy of Google Maps.
The front office understood his importance better than anyone. That’s why in 2008, new GM Mike Gillis made Luongo the first goalie captain since 1948, despite NHL rules forbidding him from officially wearing the ‘C’. It’s also why a year later, they gave Luongo the biggest contract in Canucks history; a frontloaded twelve-year, $64 million extension that the NHL would retroactively outlaw in 2013.
While in later years his contract would be seen as an albatross and stumbling block, in hindsight, his $5.33 million AAV was a laughably massive steal for the quality and stability he provided. And the front office took the money saved and built the best squad in franchise history around him.
It all came together in 2010-11. A President’s Trophy, a league-leading 38 of the Canucks’ 54 victories, and another top-three finish in Vezina voting all culminated in a magical run to the Stanley Cup Final. It was a chance for Luongo to exercise the one demon left in his career; his reputation as a goalie who couldn’t win in the playoffs, thanks to back-to-back rough losses to the Blackhawks in 2009 and 2010.
Luongo wobbled a bit in the Canucks’ first round matchup against Chicago, but eventually outdueled Corey Crawford when it mattered most. Breakout star Pekka Rinne and former Cup champion Antti Niemi were pushed aside en route to Luongo’s final battle against Tim Thomas and the Boston Bruins.
The Elephant in the Room
We don’t need to rehash everything about the most heartbreaking moment in Canucks history, but this is where the sticking point sits when it comes to Luongo’s Canucks legacy. His struggles in all three games at TD Garden remain a sore spot for a number of Canucks fans, who see him as the reason the franchise is still waiting for its first Stanley Cup championship.
Whether or not it’s fair to place the blame for an entire team’s championship defeat on one player is entirely up to you. However, there are two incredibly important facts to keep in mind when making that choice:
Luongo posted a shutout in two of the Canucks’ three wins in the Final. Both of those shutouts finished with a score of 1-0. Had he not been absolutely perfect in both of those games, the series would’ve been finished a lot sooner.
While criticism of Luongo’s play during Games 3, 4 & 6 is completely valid, his teammates in front of him were no better. The 2011 Canucks scored eight goals in a seven-game Stanley Cup Final, to this day an NHL record for futility in a series that went the distance. Five of those eight came in Vancouver’s three wins, meaning Luongo’s run support in the aforementioned losses was a grand total of three goals.
Those facts are crucial in understanding where some of the hurt feelings lie between Luongo and the Canucks’ front office who seemed content, or at least unconcerned, with making him a scapegoat for their loss in the Final.
After 2011, it was hard for some to ever see Luongo through the same lens again. He became the goalie who couldn’t win the big game, never mind that he’d previously done so for Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics hosted in the very same building. Fans began to call for backup Cory Schneider to take the reigns at any sign of weakness, and they got their wish after Luongo and the Canucks dropped the first two games of their first round series with the Los Angeles Kings. The Canucks would still be upset by the eighth-seeded Kings in five games.
The usually reserved Luongo found a way to reinvent himself off the ice when he started an “anonymous” Twitter account, @Strombone1, and began making jokes at his own expense. But he continued to put the team ahead of himself, publicly admitting he’d be willing to waive his no-trade clause to give Schneider the starting role and himself a fresh start elsewhere.
In 2013 a deal at the trade deadline got close but fell apart at the last second. Some might’ve been angry over being paraded around as a mentally weak goalie that the Canucks clearly wanted gone. Roberto responded with jokes, and never let it impact his attitude with Schneider or his teammates. Almost overnight Luongo went from an impedance in a lot of fans’ eyes to becoming a surprising underdog.
Unable to move his long contract, the Canucks instead dealt Schneider to the Devils for that year’s ninth overall pick, who became current captain Bo Horvat. Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini flew to Luongo’s summer home in South Florida to inform him of the trade and patch up the team’s relationship with the goalie. And things went back to normal… for half a season.
Under new head coach John Tortorella, Luongo’s starting role was threatened again, this time by up-and-comer Eddie Lack. When Luongo returned from the Sochi Olympics — where he’d collected yet another gold medal — he remained on the bench as Tortorella rode the hot hand that had held down the fort while he was away.
Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back. On March 2, 2014, the Canucks were slated to host their first and only outdoor game, the 2014 NHL Heritage Classic. Luongo, for his years of loyal service to the team, felt he deserved the start in such a milestone moment for the franchise. Tortorella instead named Lack the starter, the final betrayal for a 34-year-old who had given his absolute best years to a team who’d spent the last three consistently disrespecting him.
The images of him sitting on the bench in a Millionaires jersey, brown leather pads, and a black toque, were the last Canucks fans would get of Luongo in a Canucks uniform. Through his agent Pat Brisson, he demanded a trade out of Vancouver and was quickly dealt back to the Panthers in exchange for eventual successor Jacob Markstrom, where he’d wind down his career.
That final Canucks game for Luongo was nearly nine years ago, and a whole lot of things have changed. Players, coaches, and general managers have come and gone. The only people left that matter in a decision like this are the people who need to be convinced most: the Aquilini family.
Since the team’s abrupt divorce from their franchise goaltender, the team has made very few efforts to acknowledge Luongo’s impact on the team’s history. They have made some concessions here and there, such as including Roberto in the captain’s photoshoot before Henrik Sedin’s jersey retirement. But his chapter of dominance is still largely absent from view when strolling through Rogers Arena, despite how important it was for the team’s overall success.
The “goalie graveyard” label firmly ended with Luongo, and the team has been able to rely on consistently strong netminding ever since. But most importantly, Luongo brought the Canucks true legitimacy as a Stanley Cup-calibre market for the first time since the days of Pavel Bure, a level they’ve failed to reach again since.
Ironically, Bure is also a perfect example of how the franchise has righted this wrong before.
Bure left the Canucks on similarly bad terms after a trade with the Panthers in 1999, and for a long time, it was hard to find many references to the Russian Rocket’s time in Vancouver around Rogers Arena. But in 2012, Francesco Aquilini took it upon himself to try and mend the fence between the back-to-back 60-goal scorer and the organization.
After being inducted into the Hall of Fame himself in 2012, Bure finally returned to Vancouver and all was forgiven.
In an article for The Province, the late Jason Botchford highlighted the importance of that standing ovation for what would eventually lead to Bure’s No. 10 being retired by the team, and what it would take in a similar situation to make happen:
When Rogers Arena erupted in the long, adoring ovation for Pavel Bure, it washed over years of old wounds and brought the staid, private man to tears. It may also have been the final hurdle cleared for the Canucks to finally hang Bure’s No. 10 from the rafters. None of the key players who are trying to bring this endlessly divisive issue to an end knew how the crowd would react to the Canucks only Hall-of-Famer. Bure, who said it was his first time in Vancouver since he retired, didn’t know. And neither did Francesco Aquilini, the Vancouver Canucks owner who has been determined to bring Bure home, and see his number retired along with the three other Canucks legends. By the way, what owners want, they usually get.
And sure enough, a few months later, the Canucks officially corrected an error from the past and welcomed Bure home for good. Now, Bure has his own section in the Hall of Legends display on the Rogers Arena concourse, and an annual trophy for the Canucks’ most exciting player named after him.
Luongo deserves that same storybook ending. But unlike with Bure, it’ll have to come from the same owners who had a hand in pushing him away.
People can debate whether or not the No. 1 should instead be retired for Kirk McLean, who played more games in a Canucks sweater. But McLean has already been placed perfectly in the team’s Ring of Honour, where overall stats are secondary to fan favourite status and community involvement, and it’s a choice the Canucks made in 2010-11 with the clear foresight of who the jersey banner was being saved for.
Heck, ask Captain Kirk himself, and he’d probably agree.
People can even question the logic of retiring a seventh Canucks’ jersey number to the rafters before the franchise has raised a single Stanley Cup banner. But jersey retirements are about personal accomplishments on and off the ice.
Here’s a quote from a CanucksArmy piece written by Thomas Drance a decade ago, before Bure’s retirement, that goes over the criteria the team kept in mind for jersey retirement at the time:
Beyond that, the Canucks have established their own in-house, internal logic for jersey retirement and it takes into account factors beyond on-ice performance. In Smyl – who has been with the organization for most of his life, Linden – a Vancouver icon, beloved for his work in the community, and Naslund – as good a guy, and as generous with his charitable donations as anyone you’ll ever meet: contributions to the community, loyalty to the organization and overall citizenship appear to be an essential criteria for the franchise to retire your number.
Luongo checks practically all of those boxes. Like Linden, he was an absolute icon of his era. Like Naslund, he was a regular visitor at BC Children’s Hospital and Canuck Place who constantly gave back to the community and made time for the right causes. And even though he might not have the longevity of a Smyl or a Sedin, he did have the leadership qualities and generational skill that, arguably, made him among the absolute greatest to ever wear a Canucks uniform.
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Polarizing to some as he might be, you cannot tell the full history of the Vancouver Canucks without Roberto Luongo. And the only proper way to honour the greatest goaltender in team history is by immortalizing his name and number, so generations of Canucks can look up to it and strive for the same level of excellence he did.
Roberto Luongo hoped to make the Hockey Hall of Fame with the two greatest teammates he ever played with in Daniel and Henrik Sedin.
Now it’s time for his No. 1 jersey to fly next to theirs forever in the Rogers Arena rafters.
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