Roberto Luongo stands a metre in front of his goaltender's crease. The Vancouver Canucks game is about to begin, a spotlight on him, the arena darkened, the crowd standing, the national anthems playing. Luongo, eyes and head tilted up, steps from skate to skate, the right tapping the left pad, the left tapping the right pad. His right hand holds his stick, tapping his left pad. Tap, tap, tap, keeping time, drumming up rhythm.
On the last beats of the anthem – on some nights “of the braaaaave,” others “guard for theeeeee” – he turns in a quick spin, sprints the short distance to his net, puts on his mask. With a sweep of his stick to clear snow from his crease, the ritual ends, and the game begins.
It is a routine ingrained in Luongo's game, so long part of his workday that he doesn't remember exactly why, or how, or when, it began. Like all goaltenders, only more so, Luongo is an athlete whose fortunes ride on rhythm.
When Luongo is in sync, which is often, he is excellent: his 338 career wins rank 17th in history; his 59 shutouts puts him at No. 16 among the best in history. When he is off – games that have come at the worst time – it is ugly, and hard to watch, like a proud lion wounded, prey to foes.
That it occurs in the span of days jars everyone from fans to commentators. That one night Luongo is Frank Sinatra, and the next he's a drunkard with a karaoke mike. That a goaltender who can register two shutouts in the Stanley Cup final – one of only a half-dozen who have pulled off that feat in the past half-century – can also be demolished, several times, in the same series, twice pulled from the net by his coach.
On Tuesday in Vancouver, the night before his 33rd birthday and after yielding just four goals in a run of three wins, Luongo got lit up by the lowly Anaheim Ducks, compounded by no help from his defence. Vancouver fans let up a bellow of a cheer when Luongo got the hook and stellar backup Cory Schneider came on.
“I still see him get upset when a goal is scored on him,” says Tony Canuto, Luongo's coach when Roberto was 12 and 13 in Saint-Leonard, in the east end of Montreal. “It's like it was yesterday, coaching him in peewee, where a goal went in. I can see his facial expression.”
The 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs are set to begin with the Vancouver Canucks close to claiming their second consecutive Presidents' Trophy. This spring, the only measure of real success is hoisting the Cup. An especially harsh glare is pinned on Luongo. If he bombs, expect to see a lot of Schneider, who has played exceptionally this year, particularly since Christmas.
These playoffs will be a reputation-maker for Luongo. He has played well in some big games, yet after last June's failings in Boston, and a good-but-not-great season this year, Luongo's position is the most tenuous it's been in his pro career.
People who know him well, and have worked with him closely, have a resolute belief in Luongo's talent – a position that fewer hockey people are taking these days.
In interviews with coaches and goaltending coaches from Luongo's youth and professional career, and former goaltenders, the confidence in Luongo is consistent. Skeptics may scoff, but the believers highlight Luongo's big-game wins and note he can rebound strongly from stinkers – in one regularly cited example, delivering in the crucible of Game 7 against Chicago last April. They stake their faith in the goaltender on an underpinning that is described as a tremendous work ethic, a dedication to the game as craft.
“The other boys, 12, 13 years old, fooling around, whatever, and Robert would be in the corner, getting ready,” Canuto remembers. “He was so serious in the room and on the ice such a competitor. He hated to be beat. Even in practices. That was a family trait. You can't teach that as a coach.”
Ian Clark, goaltending coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets, first worked with Luongo in his early days with the Florida Panthers and then for several seasons when Luongo was traded to Vancouver. Luongo was obsessed with practice, through the season, and in summers, always hunting for ways to get better. He's a keen student of the game (and his own: when a reporter asked about a recent six-game skid, Luongo corrected the question, noting the slump was four games).
“If you ask Roberto Luongo what Steven Stamkos is going to do in a given situation he's going to tell you,” Clark says. “And he can probably say that about the top six players on every team. You could ask him, and he'll say, ‘Okay, in that situation, he's going to do this and this.' ”
Luongo always wanted to be a goaltender, even as his mother tried to dissuade the ambition. She knew the loneliness and acute pressure of the position, having been a netminder in soccer when she was young. Roberto, as a kid with his two younger brothers, was a ball-hockey fanatic, on the street in front of his house, and in the basement. He played net, his size and reflexes already the foundation of his game, making reaching gloves savings, imagining himself as his hero, the Edmonton Oilers' Grant Fuhr.
At 11, his mom relented and the boy got his shot on the ice. He promptly notched his first shutout. “You can't stop destiny,” said Lina Luongo three summers ago when a Saint-Leonard rink her son played in as a boy was renamed Arena Roberto-Luongo.
In June, 1997, when Luongo had turned 18 and was drafted fourth by the New York Islanders, the highest a goalie had ever been picked, Luongo told Sports Illustrated that the essential challenge of goaltending was to compete while having fun. “I never put pressure on myself to the point where the game is no longer fun,” he said. “It's always a challenge, but it's fun, not a job.”
Fifteen years later, in late March, Luongo stands in the Canucks' circular dressing room as he always does when he faces the usual small crush of reporters, taller than most at 6-foot-3, his hands folded behind his back. As the crowd eases, Luongo hangs on for more questions. On the verge of another Stanley Cup run, a city on his back, keeping it fun is the toughest part, Luongo says.
“You're going to have bad nights,” he says.
“[But]you're playing in the NHL, you're in first place, you're living the dream- it's not so bad. You've just got to go out there and enjoy it.”
Recovering from his mid-March slump – 16 goals in four games – Luongo over the course of several short interviews reveals aspects of his mental process. When he blows a game, or hits a bad run, he takes deep comfort in the support of a very close Italian family, and evokes the idea of a “reset.” Lose, lose, lose. Start over. It is not unlike a favourite pastime of Luongo's, online poker.
And he's a good card player. In a charity tournament last November, Luongo placed second out of 300 or so. Christian Oonk, a 35-year-old Vancouver local, was beside Luongo at the table for much of the night, and finished third. “Just like his goaltending, he's a cool cat,” Oonk says. “He's pretty relaxed. He proved he could play poker.”
In hockey, for Luongo, the fun is what's always been fun, the big saves, and the crowd's roar. Just like ball hockey dreaming of being Grant Fuhr. It's what Ken Dryden in his book The Game called “the feeling.” A high.
Angelo Lazzara, a goaltending coach in Montreal, worked with Luongo in summers for five years, earlier in Luongo's career. He knows Luongo will study game tapes, pushing to correct every mistake. But Lazzara has long counselled the goaltender to calibrate the self-imposed pressure.
How much fun Roberto Luongo has this spring is about to be seen.
“Hockey’s a kids’ game. You’ve got to have have fun, Lazzara says. “When Robert has fun, there’s nothing that’s going to go through him.”