It was Wednesday, April 3, 2013. The NHL trading deadline had come and gone, and hockey agent Gilles Lupien was sitting in Montreal, watching his star client talk to the cameras in Vancouver.
For 19 years, Lupien had represented Roberto Luongo. He had guided the Vancouver Canucks goaltender’s every move from the time Lupien, a former NHL player himself, took a wide-eyed 15-year-old Luongo to an NHL entry draft just so the youngster could get a taste of what might one day be possible for him.
Lupien had been sitting with Luongo and his parents – Antonio and Pasqualina – in Pittsburgh in 1997 when the then 18-year-old goalie went fourth overall to the New York Islanders. He had been with him through trades to the Florida Panthers and, in 2006, to the Vancouver Canucks. And he had been right beside him, of course, when Roberto Luongo signed that 12-year $64-million (U.S.) deal that would take the goalie right through to the 2021-22 season, at which point he would be 43 years old and could look back on what everyone then believed would be a Hockey Hall of Fame career. With luck, he would have a Stanley Cup ring or two to go with the Olympic gold medal he helped Canada win in the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games.
But now, here was Luongo, on the eve of turning just 34, telling the world: “My contract sucks.”
Lupien started laughing. He laughed and he laughed. And then, first opportunity, he phoned Luongo and laughed again, both of them.
“Roberto,” Lupien told his star client, “you just said what [Canucks general manager Mike] Gillis has been saying all along!”
Gillis had indeed been saying it, couched in different words, for some time. The Canucks had tried, and failed, to trade their former captain and, for years, No. 1 goaltender. The media had been saying the contract was the problem, the fans had come to believe so, and the one to blame, obviously, had to be the player who signed the deal.
“Every team knows your contract,” Lupien told Luongo. “It’s not your contract that’s the problem – it’s what they’re asking for.”
Unable to make the trade he wanted, Gillis had shifted to other drastic measures. He fired coach Alain Vigneault and brought in a coach notorious for slagging his own players in the media, John Tortorella. He dealt the goalie widely presumed to be the Canucks’ new No. 1, Cory Schneider, to the New Jersey Devils for the ninth pick in the June draft, which he then used to take a centre, Bo Horvat of the London Knights. He announced that the goaltender of the future Canucks is, once again, Roberto Luongo.
This week Lupien and Luongo spoke again on the telephone. There was no laughter this time, but no tears, either. Luongo, 34, with nine years and $40.5-million remaining on a legally binding contract, was switching agents. Lupien was fired, J.P. Barry and Pat Brisson of CAA Sports were taking over.
“I was shocked,” Lupien says. “But I understood, too.
“He said, ‘Gilles, I want to take a new path – what do you think?’ Maybe another guy they’d listen.”
The conversation threw Lupien back nearly 20 years. After Lupien’s own NHL career (five seasons with Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins and Hartford Whalers) ended, he had slowly built himself into a significant players’ agent. An early client was journeyman goaltender Jean-Claude Bergeron, who had brief stints in Montreal, Tampa Bay and Los Angeles. It fell to Lupien to let Bergeron know that he had made the calls but no one was interested. It was over.
“You’re like a doctor telling me I’m going to die,” Bergeron told Lupien. “We’ve tried all the treatments and nothing is working. Well, I’m going to see another doctor, try another pill. I need hope – do you understand, Gilles?”
Lupien did, and does again. “How can I be mad?” Lupien says. “I really do understand. Roberto has a lot of guts. He was telling me ‘I need a new message. I need new hope.’”
Lupien himself has new hope out of this – hope that the soap opera that has become Roberto Luongo and the Vancouver Canucks might soon finally be over.
“I played on a team [Montreal] with nine Hockey Hall of Famers,” he says. “I’ve never seen a star treated like that. I think personally he’s been treated like a piece of paper, a fourth-line player.”
Lupien believes that in being so public for so long about the possibilities of a trade, the team undermined its own player. The media turned on Luongo, the fans turned on him, and there was no escape. He was like “a cornered rat,” Lupien says.
“I’m in net,” Lupien says of the goaltender he considers almost a son. “There’s a guy at the red line with the puck and the fans start to boo me. The people aren’t behind you. The newspapers aren’t behind you. But you have to stop the puck.
“It’s not like a forward who can pass the puck when people start to boo. It’s not like a fourth liner who only gets out every once in a while. You have to stop every puck or else.”
“It’s almost impossible for him to perform under those circumstances.”
Lupien says it could have been handled differently. A decade ago in Montreal, he says, then GM Bob Gainey called out those who were ripping Canadiens defenceman Patrice Brisebois, calling them “gutless bastards” and saying “We don’t need those people – we don’t want those people.”
“In Vancouver,” Lupien says, “they didn’t say a word.”
The fired agent says he understands the business, both from Gillis’s point of view and from Luongo’s, but he feels strongly that there was never any need for such drawn-out drama and angst over the possibility of a trade.
“It’s okay to say you’re going to trade someone,” he says, “ but then trade him. If I want to sell my car, and I want to get a good price for it, I don’t say my car is always in the garage. There’s something wrong with it. No one will want to buy it. You either say your car is the best car you ever had – or you say nothing.”
The same day the hockey world learned that Lupien had been let go, Luongo learned that he was one of five goalies invited to the Team Canada orientation camp in late August.
Lupien will have a client there – Corey Crawford of the Stanley-Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks – but he will still be cheering for the client who fired him.
He wants to see Luongo back at the Olympics.
“Just to show them how good he is.”