A year ago, when the Vancouver Canucks held their “summer summit” for season-ticket holders, general manager Mike Gillis delivered good news: the team had signed backup-turned-starting goaltender Cory Schneider to a new three-year, $12-million contract. The future was at hand.
A year later, on Tuesday night in Vancouver, it was about rehabilitating the past, namely the psychic state of starter-turned-backup-turned-starting goaltender Roberto Luongo. The 34-year-old was shocked – like everyone around the National Hockey League – when the Canucks traded Schneider, after the team was pinned against the wall and decided to move the man they had anointed as the future and keep the guy they spent a year trying to get rid of.
With Luongo, after Schneider was traded, the Canucks immediately dispatched an emissary of contrition to the goaltender’s Florida home, billionaire Francesco Aquilini. Gillis recently made the trek himself and on Tuesday night, in lieu of Luongo speaking for himself, debriefed fans and spoke on behalf of the absent goaltender. A team official said Luongo’s “first availability” with reporters will be closer to training camp. For now, in the view of Gillis, all is good, even if Luongo indeed has not fully gotten over the incredible whipsaw he’s been carved through.
“I’m fully confident he’ll be here,” Gillis told reporters after the event, of Luongo reporting to training camp.
Gillis visited Luongo on July 15, and the two spent 3 ½ hours together. Gillis plans to speak again with Luongo this week.
“We were laughing for most of it,” Gillis told fans of the first conversation in Florida. “It wasn’t strained or adversarial at all.” Gillis did highlight several levels of Luongo’s personal pain, one being that he felt that he took more blame than others for Vancouver losing the 2011 Stanley Cup. As for the latest development in the incredible goaltending saga, Gillis said: “He’s working his way through everything that happened.”
A crucial motivating factor for Luongo – when some observers have idly speculated he might not report to training camp – will be playing for Team Canada at the Winter Olympics next February. The gold-medal backstop in 2010 had said in May, as he finished what he believed was his tenure in Vancouver, that playing for the team in 2014 was a key goal. Luongo this week was one of five goaltenders named to the team’s orientation camp in late August. However, how he and others play in the first several months of the season will be key to making the team, let alone being named starter.
Gillis, no surprise, happily predicted Luongo will be the starter come February. For Luongo, the challenge will be to do well in October, a month in which he has played poorly in the past. However, last winter, he was strong during the opening month of January, after intense off-season sessions with his former goaltending guru Francois Allaire.
So, given the stakes, it can be presumed come September Luongo will arrive in Vancouver on a redemption narrative, with the gusto and motivation to prove naysayers wrong, rather than nursing old wounds, bemoaning what did not happen.
John Tortorella, the new head coach, had spoken with Luongo by phone shortly after the Schneider trade, “I think he’s going to be fine.” Tortorella said an important factor is “what he wants to do next” in hockey, in terms of accomplishments, alluding to the coming season and the Olympics. He said Luongo will be key to any Canucks success.
“He’s a hell of a goalie,” said Tortorella. “We’re going to jump on his back.”
Among bits of news from the event – which was attended live by roughly 1,500 people, and watched online by about 1,600 on YouTube – the new assistant coaches for the team were announced by Tortorella. As expected, Mike Sullivan and Glen Gulutzan were named to the staff. Sullivan, 45, was an assistant in New York and Tampa Bay with Tortorella, and has two seasons as a head coach in Boston, in 2003-04 and 2005-06. Gulutzan, 41, was among those interviewed the Canucks head coaching job, after Alain Vigneault was fired, and coached the past two seasons in Dallas, missing the playoffs both seasons.
On other pressing roster questions, beyond goaltending, Gillis said he would talk with the Sedin twins, who turn 33 in September, about a contract extension when they return at the end of summer from Sweden. As last season ended, after the Canucks were swept out of the first round of the playoffs, both Sedins expressed interest in staying in Vancouver. They begin the last year of a five-year, $30.5-million deal, paying them $6.1-million a year, which is at least $1-million below what they could have gotten on the open market. Gillis said he will “make sure they are well taken care of.” How Gillis, and the Sedins, manage talks over any hometown discount could make the difference of possibly upwards of $2-million of salary cap room for the team.
In another throe from the past on Tuesday night, the team also officially announced the long-expected retirement of the jersey of Pavel Bure, with the Russian Rocket answering question from fans at the end of the evening. It is the culmination of a long process, given Bure demanded a trade in 1998, leaving the team on acrimonious terms.
When Bure’s jersey is lifted to the rafters of Rogers Arena, it will be his No. 10, at some point this coming season. It will be the first retired jersey of a player at Rogers Arena that is also (already) in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The other three retired jerseys in Vancouver are Trevor Linden, Stan Smyl, and Markus Naslund.
“It’s nice to be back,” said Bure, who enjoyed fawning questions of fans’ warm memories of his remarkable play. “It’s nice to see all of you guys.”
Beyond the ice, the question of the business of the Vancouver Canucks was considered. There was a complaint from fans about season-ticket holders being forced to pay full-dollar for preseason tickets. The Canucks – who claim more than 400 consecutive sellouts dating back more than a decade – struggled to sell out the two playoff games they lost to the San Jose Sharks. Canucks chief operating officer Victor de Bonis said 95 per cent of season ticket holders have renewed for next season. Prices had been set to tick up but de Bonis didn’t address that. He did say the team had to “make a few changes,” but added, “The passion hasn’t gone anywhere.”