Roberto Luongo comes off the ice and happily goes over to a crowd of youngsters, exchanges high-fives, signs their hats and heads for the dressing room.
Cory Schneider, also in goaltender gear and also in a Vancouver Canucks practice jersey, comes off the ice and happily goes over to a crowd of youngsters, exchanges high-fives, signs a couple of autographs and heads for the same room.
But there are differences.
Luongo is 32. He made $10-million (U.S.) last year, will make $6.7-million a year until 2018 – and still have four more seasons to run on his contract. He is the Canucks starting goaltender. He struggles to remember a time – he was 16, in his first year of junior hockey – when he was designated the “backup.”
“The thing is,” Luongo says after practice Friday, “I usually have backups with me for a year, and then they’re gone.”
Except for this one. Schneider is 25. He makes $900,000 a year on a contract that runs out at the end of this season. He is, once again, the backup goaltender for the Canucks.
There are those who would see the talented kid take over from the veteran, despite the handcuffs involved when one has a $64-million deal that takes him to 43, and the other will soon be worrying about what he will be doing at 26.
The Canucks, Stanley Cup finalists last June, stumbled badly to start their new season. When Luongo was injured in November, the young backup stepped in and the team fortunes seemed to change overnight. He won five in a row and was so impressive one of the Vancouver newspapers ran an editorial calling for Luongo to be traded – even thoughtfully providing the name of the player the Canucks should go for, Tampa Bay Lightning centre Vincent Lecavalier.
Sports madness knows no limits on the West Coast.
A healthy Luongo is back now, but the issue flares easily. When the Montreal Canadiens went up 3-0 against the Canucks last Thursday after only nine shots, there were calls to pull Luongo. The coaches decided not to, however, and Vancouver came back to tie the game and win in a shootout.
“You stay with him,” associate coach Rick Bowness says, “because we feel he’s coming back, he’s getting right on top of his game. You show a little trust in him, a little faith, and he rewards, because he made some huge saves after that. They could have put that game out of hand for us, but he kept them at three.”
Bowness says there is “great chemistry” between the two ambitious goaltenders – “and it’s real, not forced.”
“It’s nice to get a chance to work with somebody for more than a year,” Luongo says of Schneider. “We get along really well.”
Luongo is most complimentary to his young understudy, saying the team “took off” after “Cory stepped in and went on a tear.” The older goaltender, who has always wanted to play as much as possible, seems to have mellowed to a point where he now believes a team can essentially have two No. 1s.
“If you look around the league now,” he says, “there are a lot of teams that have that system. It kind of reminds me of running backs in the NFL. More and more [football]teams are going with two running backs. The schedule is so demanding, especially out west with the travel and the number of games. We had a long run last year, and we need both guys to get in there playing well. Also, you never know. Injuries can happen and stuff like that.”
Schneider, however, should not have to wait for injuries in order to get his chances. He’s that good and people in the league know it.
Other teams, including Saturday’s opponent, the Ottawa Senators, have made overtures toward trading for Schneider, but Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis has shown little interest in losing such a reliable backup.
It creates a happy situation for Gillis but cannot possibly be so for Schneider – though he gives no indication, is openly friendly with Luongo and is considered a positive and popular force in the dressing room.
Come summer, however, he will be a restricted free agent, which means if he hasn’t been traded he’ll either see a handsome new contract, end up in arbitration or perhaps even be the subject of an offer sheet from another team.
At some point, the betting is that the game’s most-talented backup is going to find himself with his own backup.
“He’ll be a No. 1 goalie in this league,” Bowness says. “No question.”