The tilting, from one man to another, began to truly vibrate 18 months ago.
On the day before Roberto Luongo’s 33rd birthday, as he was shellacked by the Anaheim Ducks near the end of the 2011-12 regular season, the Vancouver Canucks goaltender was yanked midway through the game – to the cheers of the home crowd at Rogers Arena. They knew who was coming in.
When Cory Schneider skated on the ice, fans let out a greater roar. The young backup had been anointed.
The interim since was full of swirling drama – and playoff losses – and produced one climatic kaboom on draft day at the Prudential Center in New Jersey in late June, when league chief Gary Bettman went to the podium to announce a trade.
On Tuesday, the former apprentice Schneider returns to Vancouver – dressed in red, black and white, the colours of the visiting New Jersey Devils. It will be the 27-year-old’s 100th game in the NHL – the first 98 in a Canucks uniform.
At the other end of the rink will be, in blue, Luongo.
A third (young) man not in attendance is Bo Horvat, the 18-year-old the Canucks chose ninth overall in the draft, the first-round pick acquired from New Jersey in the last-minute, desperation trade after Vancouver concluded it couldn’t move Luongo and his $64-million (U.S.) contract for anything resembling a reasonable return and shipped away Schneider instead.
“I’ve moved on,” Schneider said to reporters last Sunday in Edmonton. “I don’t know if everyone else has or not, but I’m all-in with this team and these guys.”
He did concede the setting and the swap was peculiar but did so in the even tone which marked his personality through the long tumult in Vancouver. “It will be strange playing against some of these guys I played with for a long time, but once the puck drops, it will just be another hockey game.”
It has been three months or so since the plot twist no one predicted and life has resumed something like normalcy, with Luongo as Vancouver’s starter as though that is how it was planned all the way along.
But there’s no way anyone can forget the reality the guy Vancouver pinned its future on will be playing Tuesday at Rogers Arena in another team’s jersey. And, for now, the winner of the trade is New Jersey, as it acquired the man who will replace legend Martin Brodeur.
What Horvat does for Vancouver will be a story that unspools over years. At present, the Canucks have nothing to show for the Schneider trade. The 18-year-old Horvat, after failing to crack the roster in training camp, plies his trade back in London, Ont., in major junior, where he will play in the Memorial Cup again next spring and likely the world juniors this winter. Horvat has six points – three goals – in his first three games back among teenagers.
“We made a trade that we feel long-term helps our hockey team,” Canucks president Mike Gillis said in an interview last week.
The emphasis, even without a change in the tone of Gillis’s voice, is clearly on long-term. Gillis never liked what he was offered for Luongo in the many months a deal could have been made and, by the time a decision was forced, the market had changed. So Schneider was dispatched, shocking everybody, and sparking a parade of contrition to Luongo’s home in Florida, starting with owner Francesco Aquilini. We’re sorry.
For Vancouver – which has started 2-1 – Luongo has played been his October self. He did start fairly well, keeping the team in the game during its opening loss in San Jose, and then played less well at home against the Edmonton Oilers during a win last Saturday.
“That’s the funny thing about hockey,” Luongo said of his first two games. “You feel good and lose 4-1, and you don’t feel so good and you win 6-2.”
Luongo, 34, is trying to shake a long trend of slow starts, ugly Octobers. It is a work-in-progress: his even-strength save-percentage is a terrible 0.850 so far. He sat last Sunday in Calgary as backup Eddie Lack played his first NHL and won in overtime.
Schneider, meanwhile, seemed poised for an incredible season. In the preseason, he yielded just a single goal on 80 shots, one that came on the power play.
But Schneider and the Devils were smoked on the road in their first game by Pittsburgh, who won 3-0, as Schneider could only stop 18 of 21 shots – an even-strength save-percentage not much better than Luongo’s (0.857). Brodeur was in net last Friday, when the Devils lost in a shootout to the New York Islanders and was scheduled to be in net again Monday in Edmonton.
Bu there was no question the Devils would have Schneider in net against the Canucks, New Jersey head coach Pete DeBoer said.
“It’s pretty natural that guys want to play in the cities that they used to play in,” he said. “It never really crossed my mind other than that he would want to play that game and we would give it to him.”