You look around the Vancouver Canucks these days and it’s hard to find anyone who can supply the big-picture perspective on what Roberto Luongo means to this franchise.
The front office? Well, Stan Smyl is still around, mind you the Steamer could supply a meaty quote on Lars Lindgren’s legacy. General manager Jim Benning and his assistant, John Weisbrod, however, arrived after Luongo’s messy divorce from the club and it’s the same story for head coach Travis Green. Players? There are exactly two who were with the team when Luongo was traded to Florida in March 2014: Alex Edler and Chris Tanev.
So, given the available resources, it’s hard to write the all-encompassing piece that puts Luongo’s career into perspective. To be sure, his statistic line tells a story. But the larger narrative with the great goalie has always transcended numbers because, from the moment he arrived in town, Luongo played the lead role in one of the most fascinating sports dramas in B.C.
The Montrealer, who turns, yikes, 40 in April, drew the starting assignment for the Florida Panthers in Sunday’s meeting with the Canucks in what could be his last appearance at the building he once owned. It’s been a difficult season for the future Hall-of-Famer — save percentage under .900, yanked in three of six starts recently — but against his former team he resurrected some of his old form, stopping 31 of 34 shots in the Canucks’ 5-1 win that featured two empty-net goals and a meaningless late marker by Markus Granlund.
Ben Hutton’s third-period goal stood up as the winner, but, with the crowd chanting his name, Luongo kept things close. And, yes, the crowd reaction meant something to him.
“It’s always nice to come back here,” Luongo said. “The fans are great. It’s always special for me. It will always have a special place in my heart.”
He was asked if this could be his last game in Vancouver.
“I don’t know where that came from,” he said. “I haven’t talked about that. It was funny to see a lot of people talking about that.”
But it always seems we’re talking about Luongo in this market.
The former prince of the city is now teeing it up on the 18th hole of his career and he’s lasted so long that his contract no longer sucks. Late last season he joined Marty Brodeur and Patrick Roy as the only goalies in NHL history to play 1,000 career games. If he wins 10 more games this season he’ll move past Ed Belfour into fourth place in career wins.
That, at least, is his place in the NHL history books. As for his place in Canucks’ history, it speaks volumes that Luongo remains such an endlessly compelling figure to the faithful despite spending less than half his career in Vancouver.
Looking back over his time with the Canucks, it now seems Luongo wasn’t a goalie so much as the central character in an epic novel. The broad strokes — he’s the fourth-greatest Canuck of all time behind the Sedins and Pavel Bure, and his starring role on the best Canucks team cements his place in franchise lore.
But the fascination with Luongo lies elsewhere. He arrived via a blockbuster trade with the Panthers before the 2006-07 season and immediately authored one of the five best individual seasons in Canucks history while helping change the direction of the franchise. Yes, the Sedins were emerging as elite players and Ryan Kesler was a force. But Luongo was the foundation on which the Canucks built a championship-quality team, averaging 64 starts, 39 wins, with a .920 save percentage per season in the six seasons between 2006-07 and 2011-12.
Still, it was the other stuff that captivated his audience. In one of the loopier decisions of the Gillis administration, he was named the team’s captain. before the 2008-09 season. That spring, he allowed seven goals in a series-ending 7-5 loss to Chicago in the second round of the playoffs and wept in front of the TV cameras. Before the start of the next season he signed the infamous 12-year, US$64 million deal, a contract that, among other things, led to the NHL changing the rules on long-term deals in the next CBA.
Remarkably, that contract still hangs over the Canucks’ head.
Luongo and the team, however, were entering their peak years and you know what happened there. As for what happened next, well, we don’t have the space to recount it all, but there was drawn-out goalie controversy with Cory Schneider, a near trade with Toronto, a Schneider trade, a tortured year under Torts highlighted by a snub in the Heritage Classic and, finally, the trade back to Florida.
As mentioned, there was a fair bit going on in those years, but, amid all that intrigue, something wonderful happened with the relationship between the goalie and the Canucks fans. A mercurial sort in his early years here and something of a diva, Luongo changed his image through his intensely human reaction to the events that raged around him. It helped that he mastered social media. But there was also a raw honesty about him with which fans could identify. He could be funny, he could be frustrated, he could be jubilant, but you never had to wonder what he was feeling and in a world where the principals take such pains to hide their emotions, Luongo was an open book.
That book is now drawing to a close. He’s been many things in his two decades, but, in this province, he’ll always be remembered for everything he was.
There are worse ways to be remembered.