Photo credit:Twitter via @Canucks
How Roberto Luongo forever changed the Vancouver Canucks, and what he meant to the fans who saw him play
2 months ago
The very first exclusive interview in my hockey reporting career was with Roberto Luongo. Sort of.
It was a brisk January day in 2009. I was 11 years old and having lunch with my mum, aunt, and younger cousin at the Roundhouse Sciué cafe (RIP), when a very tall, instantly recognizable man walked in. “Look, it’s Luongo!” my mum whispered to me. “Do you wanna go say hi?”
At first, extremely starstruck by my hockey idol being a few feet away, I shook my head no. But with some coaxing, I eventually bucked up the courage to introduce myself and shake his hand. I don’t remember much about talking to Roberto — in an exclusive interview with CanucksArmy, my mum said he was “so sweet and kind to you, I was so relieved because sometimes meeting your idol sucks.” — but I do remember asking one question.
At the time, Luongo had been out of action for nearly two months thanks to a groin injury he suffered in a late November game against Pittsburgh. So I asked him, “When are you coming back from your injury?”
“I’m feeling much better,” Luongo said. “The doctors said I should be good to go again in a couple of weeks!”
Two weeks later, he was back in net against the Coyotes.
Tonight, the Vancouver Canucks will celebrate the greatest goaltender to ever don their uniform, and one of the absolute best netminders to ever play the game.
If it were up to me, tonight we’d be watching a banner with Roberto Luongo’s #1 jersey rise to the Rogers Arena rafters instead of a Ring of Honour induction. But rather than focus on what kind of tribute he should get, today is all about the man himself.
When Luongo arrived in 2006, he inherited one of the most heavily scrutinized roles any NHLer could play and a team unsure of its direction. Vancouver had been a certified “goalie graveyard” since Kirk McLean was traded in 1998, and though some had come close to stabilizing the position, none had fully succeeded. But in his first start against the Detroit Red Wings, Luongo began a brand new era of Canucks hockey.
In his first season with the Canucks, Luongo put together one of the single greatest seasons by a goalie in NHL history; 47 wins, tying with Bernie Parent’s 36-year-old record for wins in a season, a .921 save percentage, and leading Vancouver to the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Despite this, in what would become a theme for him and the Canucks for years to come, Luongo wouldn’t get the full credit he deserved. He ended up finishing second in Vezina voting to Martin Brodeur, who broke Parent’s record that same year behind a much better Devils defence, and second in MVP voting to Sidney Crosby.
What made Luongo different from other goalies of his era was that not only could he steal games, but he also brought fans out of their seats as he did it. Luongo’s favourite goalie growing up was Grant Fuhr, who brought flair to the position before Dominik Hasek made it foundational. That influence was obvious in every game Luongo played, whether through his dogged determination to throw every part of his body at the puck on rebounds, or from the way he flashed the leather on glove saves.
While Kirk McLean and Richard Brodeur before him became fan favourites by playing the hero role across deep postseason runs, Luongo was the first true superstar the Canucks ever had at the position. He came with expectations of greatness, and while he routinely exceeded them, he also had to learn to manage them in a market that can be a pressure cooker when the going gets tough.
In his early years here, Luongo preferred to let his play do the talking rather than use his voice in media scrums afterwards. Sure, he’d occasionally pop up on the Weather Network to talk about a the recent stretch of sunshine during a routine seawall jog, but he preferred keeping people at arms length when it came to his on-ice exploits.
But as the years went by, Luongo took on more and more responsibilities expected from the face of a franchise. He let his walls down with the media. He went out of his way to spend time with patients at Canuck Place hospice. And in 2008 he became the first goaltender in 60 years to be named team captain, a role he served for two seasons before handing it to Henrik Sedin in 2010.
As a leader in the locker room, Luongo set the tone for his teammates through his work ethic, determination to win and respect for his teammates. Even as the Sedins gradually took some of the spotlight off of him, all three of them had a big hand in making the Canucks locker room a space that players from other teams wanted to come be a part of. And it all culminated in back-to-back President’s Trophies and a run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2011.
That Final is where Luongo’s legacy changed. The narrative that he couldn’t win when it counted – despite having done so just a year earlier in the Vancouver 2010 gold medal game – reached a fever pitch. Suddenly, one single result was given more weight than over 300 that came before it.
Most players would’ve reverted to their most guarded state in the public eye after facing so much scrutiny, but not Luongo. If anything, he opened himself up more. He started a “burner” Twitter account, @Strombone1, that he used to mock his own career and play. And he was just as jokey in person, ready with lines like “my contract sucks” after the Canucks’ unsuccessful attempts to trade him in 2013.
Even with that new mentality, Luongo’s time in Vancouver still ended on a sour note after the infamous Heritage Classic benching that led to his return to Florida. And ever since, his Canucks legacy has been one of the most polarizing debates in sports. Tonight the record will be, more or less, finally set straight.
I was nine years old when Luongo was traded to the Canucks, and about to start my very first season of organized hockey. I already knew I wanted to be a goaltender, but like a lot of other BC born kids my age, it was firmly set in stone when Lu showed up.
Every time Luongo got the start in those early years, I watched along and did my best to mimic his style of play, both on the ice and in my parent’s living room with a mini stick. A lot of the praise I’d get from hockey coaches in the seasons to follow were things I learned from Lu; my “controlled chaos” style of play, battling for every last puck and not letting a bad goal or game shake me. When he became captain, it made me work to be a better leader in the hopes of maybe wearing the ‘C’ myself some day (I’m still waiting for that opportunity).
But perhaps most importantly, Luongo is why I’m here writing about him today. Hockey had always been my favourite sport, but Luongo made it my passion; something I wanted to talk about so much that the only possible career choice for me was to become a hockey writer.
And I’m far from the only person who has Lu to thank for their love of hockey. Practically every Canucks fan around my age still has the iconic ‘Luuuuuuuuuu’ chants ringing in their ears, or the sound of John Shorthouse’s “OH what a save by Luongo!” and Jim Hughson’s “Grrrreat saaave Luongo!” burned in our memories. They remember walking by GM Place – later Rogers Arena – and seeing the giant Luongo poster stare back at them over the Dunsmuir Viaduct. And they remember the pain of watching him unceremoniously pack his bags for South Florida, ending the greatest era in franchise history.
His relationship with the fanbase was never simple, but that complicated legacy is what makes Roberto Luongo the quintessential Vancouver Canuck. Just like the team he represented, he played with something to prove and his path to greatness wasn’t linear. But as the naysayers got louder, Luongo somehow endeared himself to the fanbase even more, and has become an almost mythic character in Canucks lore in the seven years since he left.
Future generations of Canucks fans will know him from the legends we tell about him. “I saw him make 72 saves in his first playoff start.” “I remember watching him race out of the Honda Center bathroom in OT like a knight going to battle.” “I saw him win two games by a 1-0 score in a Stanley Cup Final, and then exploded Tim Thomas with a tire pump.”
To us Roberto Luongo was more than just a Hall of Fame goaltender who played eight seasons in Vancouver and set nearly every franchise record. He was the man that changed the Vancouver Canucks from a hopeful underdog into a contender that all roads to a Stanley Cup went through. We’ll likely never see a Canuck like Lu again and tonight, the team and their fans will celebrate his amazing legacy.
Congrats Roberto, and thanks for everything.
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