Like so many fans of the local Canuckleheads, I was an off and on admirer of Roberto Luongo during his seven years with the team. Loved him, soured on him, then grew to admire him, despite all the abuse he took from the knuckleheaded folks who have given Vancouver its sadly deserved reputation as a goalie graveyard.
Starved for a winner, fans tend to take out their frustration on the obvious, the guy between the pipes as yet another goal trickles over the line. Never mind the botched line changes, the defensive breakdowns, the giveaways, the woeful power plays, Keith Ballard. It’s the goalie who gets the loudest abuse whenever he makes a gaffe. The legendary Jacques Plante, the most innovative goaltender in hockey history, said it well: “How would you like it at your job, if every time you made the slightest mistake, a little red light went on over your head and 18,000 people stood up and screamed at you?”
Nothing can erase those mystifying playoff breakdowns that plagued Luongo at key moments in his career with the Canucks. Painful memories of the big guy flopping around like a beached whale, minus his stick, or whiffing on a shot to the short side are hard to forget. Yet, it’s useful to recall the rest of the team didn’t play well in some of those games, either.
As a longtime “Icepack” ticket holder, I see about a dozen games a year at the Aquilinis’ cashbox. Until this year, my seat was behind the Canucks’ goal for two of the three periods. So I saw a lot of Luongo in net. More often than not, you could tell almost from the first shot whether Lu would have a good night. If he was sharp on the first tough shot, he was almost always solid for the rest of the game. “He’s on the puck tonight,” I would tell my seatmate, meaning his reaction time was quick and precise. If he seemed uncertain early on, he usually battled the puck for the rest of the game. Why someone as good as Luongo would have these off-nights was always a puzzle, and they frustrated me as much as anyone.
But over his last few years with the Canucks, I changed my view. I no longer expected Luongo to be terrific in every game. I began to appreciate him as just one hell of a good goalie, one of the best, if not the best, to ever play for Vancouver. Not only that, he seemed to grow personally as well, displaying a wonderful, self-deprecating sense of humour on Twitter as @strombone1. ( @strombone1 Jan 5 What are your office hours this week @RoxyVancouver ? Just asking for a friend ————>@ShaneOBrien55)
And his handling of the difficult situation with Cory Schneider, who was slowly replacing him as the Canucks’ chief custodian of the pipes, was classy and professional. Their joint video was hilarious. http://video.nhl.com/videocenter/console?id=221117
I really became a member of Lu’s Legions the night he was injured in a pile-up and had to leave the game. As Luongo wobbled off and Schneider skated on to replace him, the fans cheered. I thought: what a shabby, tasteless treatment of a guy who had done so much and played his heart out for the Canucks. I’ve been firmly in his corner ever since.
So I was sad to see him depart for Florida. That followed John Tortorella’s unforgiveable decision to leave Luongo on the bench for last year’s Heritage Classic, a game he yearned to play. It was the worst move by a Canucks’ coach since Trevor Linden was pressured to give up his captaincy to the appalling Mark Messier in 1996. Luongo soon decamped with his rich, multi-year contract to the far more relaxed environment of The Sunshine State, where he met his wife and started his NHL career. Despite my own sorrow, I was happy for Lu, and he has responded with a solid season so far for the surprising Panthers.
Which brings us to Thursday, when Luongo returned to the Rogers Arena for the first time since his hasty leave-taking last March. It turned into a grand occasion. For a change, the fans were classy. The Luongo haters were absent. It was all “Luuuuuuu”, not “Boooooo”. The familiar low cheer rumbled through the rink every time Luongo made a decent save. Right off the bat, as my favourite netminder flashed his thick pads to deflect a quick, hard shot into the corner, I said to my seat-mate, as I had so often in the past: “He’s on the puck tonight.” And indeed, he was, stopping 31 of the 32 shots the punchless home-towners fired his way.
He was an easy choice as the game’s first star in the Panthers’ 3-1 victory. Many of us stayed behind to roar for Lu as he skated out to acknowledge his selection, the first time I can remember a guy from the other team doing that. The roar got louder, when Luongo did what he always did, after being chosen a star for the Canucks. He headed to the boards and gave his big goalie stick to a kid. Skating off, he clapped his hands to acknowledge our cheers.
That was great, but the most emotional moment had come much earlier. During a first period break, the Canucks’ showed a video highlight of Luongo’s career with Vancouver. The crowd rose as one, cheered mightily, and of course, serenaded the Panthers’ goalie with the loudest “Luuuuuu” of the night. A bit unsure what to do, Luongo took off his mask, raised his stick and touched his heart. Perfect.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only fan who left the game with a happy smile. Good on you, Lu. Thanks for the memories.