The towering image on the side of Rogers Arena welcomes drivers on the Dunsmuir Viaduct into downtown Vancouver. It stood sentinel before and throughout the soap opera: Roberto Luongo, nine-metres tall, his brown eyes piercing behind his goalie mask, his pads spread above the team’s slogan, “We are all Canucks.”
It felt weird, uncomfortable, this larger-than-life Luongo, him standing there all through last winter. The onetime franchise goaltender, onetime captain, the $64-million man, had been relegated and emasculated, and wanted out. His time was done. He had lost his job to Cory Schneider.
Perhaps, however, it was always foreshadowing. Luongo never really left and – after the Canucks were pinned against a wall in late June and traded Schneider instead of Luongo – the 34-year-old is again the team’s focal point. The soap opera does not end, and in fact escalates. Stage left: a rejected and tarnished hero is called back to duty. Stage right: a villain enters, new head coach John Tortorella, himself exiled from New York and seeking redemption.
The puck drops Thursday night on the new chapter in one of the stranger sagas in recent hockey history, as Vancouver opens its season in San Jose, the team that plowed over the Canucks last spring in the playoffs.
The lurching drama entirely befits a franchise that has been roiled from its inception, from the top down.
The team’s original owner, an American from Minnesota, a P.T. Barnum-type named Tom Scallen, did not last long and was jailed for securities fraud, connected with a public offering of shares in the hockey team. Scallen served nine months and was thereafter deported, though eventually pardoned.
The second owners, the local Griffiths family, fared somewhat better – and the perennial bumblers on the ice reached the Stanley Cup finals twice, defeated both times, the return visit sparking a riot in 1994. The Griffiths eventually lost control of the team, crushed by debt in the 1990s when they built what is now called Rogers Arena and took on a National Basketball Association franchise, the Grizzlies. An American, again, arrived in the fiscal breach, the telecom billionaire John McCaw Jr.
An era of stability emerged when the Aquilinis bought the Canucks, but only after the family battled off a months-long challenge in a courtroom against the Gaglardis and Beedies, a royal rumble of wealthy local clans. An extended golden era on the ice, finally, arrived as well, and the demarcation point of its beginning was the arrival of Roberto Luongo. The near-pinnacle came in June, 2011, when the team fell one game short of the prize, and the citizenry, drunken and depressed, again rioted.
This next act, as the unlikely and epic ballad of Bobby Lu plays on, the story shifts to a redemption narrative, for Luongo, for a new coach, and for an entire franchise.
Luongo, spurned, yearns to prove everyone wrong. The fiery, coarse Tortorella tries to shed “that lunatic” reputation. And the team, led by the aging Sedins, seeks revival, once so achingly close to a championship and then failing in the past two playoffs, a single victory in nine games.
At the end, as ridiculous as it seems, it feels it always was meant to be thus: Roberto Luongo presiding, nine metres tall on the side of the arena and patrolling the crease on the ice, backstopping the never-ceasing dramatics of a hockey team in the one National Hockey League city in Canada that does not have outdoor ice in winter. The crowd inside bellows: Luuuuuuuuu.