Sixteen seconds before a goal that everyone remembers, Roberto Luongo stared down Joe Pavelski, after the American forward had intercepted a pass by Team Canada captain Scott Niedermayer.
It was overtime of the men’s Olympic gold-medal hockey game in 2010, some seven minutes in. Pavelski, having snagged the puck, quickly spun to face Luongo, a clear look, shooter against goaltender. From inside the top of the faceoff circle on Luongo’s glove side, Pavelski fired a wrist shot to the far side of the net. Luongo got his elbow on the puck and it fell to the ice in front of him.
Luongo was going to freeze it, but Niedermayer called for the puck and began the rush up ice that culminated in an entire country celebrating Canada’s 14th and biggest gold medal of the Vancouver Olympics, a volcanic eruption of joy.
Thirty-nine hours earlier, in the semi-final game against Slovakia, Canada up 3-2 in the final moments, Slovakia pressing with an extra attacker, a rebound bounced to Pavol Demitra at the side of the net, and he had a lot of open net to look at. Luongo, down on the ice, stretched the distance, a rubber-band body and all of his 6-foot-3 frame, to clip the shot with his glove, 10 seconds left, preserving the win.
In the 1998 song Fireworks by the Tragically Hip, the first line is: “If there’s a goal that everyone remembers …” Gord Downie was writing about Paul Henderson's series-clinching goal against the Soviet Union back in 1972. But whatever the era and whoever the scorer, Henderson or Sidney Crosby, it is always a goal that is remembered. Not a save. Not a goalie. A goal.
And so it is for Luongo, a goaltender who was a big part of Canada’s gold in 2010, a goaltender whose career accomplishments over 14 NHL seasons have him ranked No. 5 all-time in save percentage, on track to crack the top 10 in wins next year and reach top 10 in shutouts when he is 37.
Yet Luongo’s general reputation, especially to the casual fan, is of question marks, not delivering when it counts.
The melodrama that churned the Vancouver Canucks for more than a year didn’t help, starting when Luongo was benched in the 2012 playoffs for backup Cory Schneider and concluding 14 months later, with we-wanted-to-trade-you-but-we-decided-to-keep-you.
A year ago, Luongo was the backup on his own team.
Now, he is one of three goaltenders on Team Canada.
The insider’s take is Carey Price, the 26-year-old Montreal Canadiens netminder, will be the starter, but Luongo, 34, has put together one of the better seasons of his career.
Recently, team boss Steve Yzerman said the two netminders would split Canada’s first two starts: Feb. 13 against Norway and Feb. 14 against Austria.
The Feb. 16 game against Finland will be key.
Luongo’s play hasn’t been exemplary of late, and he has been injured twice this season (groin and right ankle, which remains taped after returning to action in mid-January).
“It’s not really about Team Canada,” Luongo said in an interview, when asked about his motivations in the past year. “It’s just about re-establishing myself.
“I wanted to show everybody that I can still be one of the best in the league. That’s what it’s all about for me.
“Obviously, there were circumstances that were out of my control a little bit over the past couple years. I tried to make the best of it. I knew I still had a game in me. That’s what mattered.”
Through his career, Luongo has constantly tinkered to improve in the crease, devoted to practice, during seasons and in summers.
An important period of Luongo’s evolution was eight weeks in the autumn of 2012 in Florida, working daily, 1-on-1 with François Allaire, a long-time mentor who first tutored Luongo when he was a teenager in Montreal.
“For people that think Roberto is the goaltender he was even in 2010 in the Olympics, I would beg to differ,” former NHL goalie and analyst/broadcaster Darren Pang said.
“Roberto Luongo is in complete control of his posts and his crease right now.”
These days, as goaltending styles evolve, Luongo plays his posts differently, the pad by the post down on the ice, and inside pad up.
His glove hand is higher, and at a more upright angle, so it can shoot straight for top-corner pucks, rather than swoop up for them. This season, this sort of detail, net play, has been a particular focus.
Overall, Luongo plays a less-aggressive game than in the past, positioned closer to the net, “in the blue.”
He’s more methodical, along the lines of the likes of Henrik Lundqvist, and less adventurous than goalies such as Jonathan Quick.
Looking toward the larger international ice in Sochi, Luongo has his younger brother to assess the nuances of bigger surface, its different angles.
Leo Luongo is a goalie coach in Switzerland for HC Lugano and has been feeding his big brother tips and advice.
“Roberto was always a goaltender who had an extreme passion for improvement,” said Ian Clark, former goalie coach in Vancouver who is currently the goalie coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Luongo has always been a student of hockey, leveraging a smart mind.
As a boy he was strong in math class. His mom and dad wanted him to become an accountant. As an adult, he is an accomplished poker player.
In hockey, he studies opponents. “I watch hockey almost every night when I’m at home,” he said.
“I like the sport, you know? It gives me the chance to study players, tendencies from teams, other goalies, all that stuff.”
Beyond the crease, as well as in it, Luongo is calmer, his emotions steadier.
After the 2010 gold, Luongo was stung by the sense that his contribution was overlooked. After the Canucks lost in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup, he felt an undue share of blame was dumped on him. And his irreverent, self-deprecating humour would backfire on him in public.
Twitter became a salve and his quips have garnered an audience of a quarter-million followers.
“I like it because it’s a public place, but you’re still guarded by a computer screen or a phone,” said the man who tweets as @strombone1, his online poker handle.
“You can’t get mobbed by people. Sometimes, that gets a little overwhelming for me, so it’s a fun way for me to interact with people and let them see my personality without really having to put myself in a situation where it gets uncomfortable.”
In his two previous Olympics, Luongo was the backup.
In Turin in 2006, he was 1-1, and sat as Canada and starter Martin Brodeur lost 2-0 to Russia in the quarter-finals. In Vancouver, Luongo replaced Brodeur for the playoff rounds, finishing 5-0.
Luongo’s Olympics numbers are 6-1, giving up 12 goals in 427 minutes for a 1.76 goals-against average.
Big-game numbers, from an athlete a lot of people don’t believe is a big-game goaltender.
“I wouldn’t ever question having Roberto between the pipes moving into one of those situations,” said Clark. “Ever.”
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