Pine keeping Luongo philosophical
During the last two calendar years, Roberto Luongo has won Olympic gold and lost Stanley Cup silver, both in winner-take-all final games on home ice. He has laughed and he has cried, been saluted by hosannas and by single fingers. He draws "oooos" from Vancouver Canucks fans everywhere he goes. Sometimes the "oooos" start with an L, sometimes with a B.
Luongo has been peppered with just about every imaginable question from the rabid Vancouver hockey press, including what language (he's fluent in three -- Italian, French and English) he thinks in during a game. All that's left is for someone to ask a variation of Barbara Walters' infamous query for Katharine Hepburn: "What kind of a tree are you, if you think you are a tree?"
Roberto Luongo has played amid indifference during career stops in Long Island and Florida, and in the jaws of all-consuming hockey passion in Vancouver. At 32, he has seen and been through a lot in his 12-year NHL career -- except one thing: being a backup goaltender.
Whether Luongo actually is one right now was one of the league's hotter topics entering the post-Thanksgiving weekend. Technically, a backup is what he was as the Canucks prepared for Friday's game at Jobing.com Arena against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Despite pronouncing himself healthy on Wednesday, after eight days out with an upper-body injury, Luongo sat at the end of the Canucks' bench that night and watched as his former backup, Cory Schneider, shut out the Colorado Avalanche 3-0 at the Pepsi Center.
After the Canucks practiced in Denver on Thanksgiving Day, coach Alain Vigneault said Schneider, the 25-year-old native of Marblehead, Mass., would get the start against Phoenix. What a better day for a food fight between goalies? In one corner, Luongo -- four-time NHL All-Star, 308 victories at a relatively young age, a saves percentage that has never dipped under .900, and a guaranteed contract that will pay him until age 43. In the other corner, Schneider -- he of 36 career starts (after Wednesday's outing), with a 4-4-0 record and a good but not otherworldly .920 saves percentage.
Sadly for the media gathered in the visitors dressing room at the Pepsi Center, there were no verbal fusillades tossed from Luongo's locker about coach Alain Vigneault passing him over for the starting job at the moment. It was not surprising, perhaps. With all that Luongo has been through, he wore a philosopher's skates when discussing his latest challenge.
"We have the luxury of two good goalies here," Luongo said. "Schneids is giving me a couple extra practices here to make sure my timing is back. But we'll see. I don't want to look too far into the future."
But how long Luongo maintains a respectful subservience to Schneider will be closely watched. Before Thursday's practice, Luongo said he would practice with the assumption that "I'll be playing Friday." With that not happening at the moment, it's officially a Big Story in Vancouver, where now that the B.C. Lions are done with their CFL season, the Canucks are front-page, back-page and every-page-in-between newspaper material.
Luongo is long used to being the goaltender alpha male on his teams, with 60 or more starts in seven of his last eight seasons. He's the guy with the 12-year, $64 million contract that has an expiration date of 2022, while Schneider is in the last year of a deal that pays him $900,000.
It's always easy to be gracious about a missed start here and there because of a hot backup, but Luongo knows he's the man making the big bucks and he's been known to make a controversial statement now and then. But maybe some more time to rest and just think would be good for Luongo, too. His life has been a whirlwind from the start in Vancouver, the last two years in particular with the pressure of the gold medal game for Canada against the Americans in 2010 and the seventh game of the Cup final against Boston last spring in which the Bruins prevailed 4-0.
"I think we learned a lot from it, I learned a lot from it. I'm still doing what I love and playing on a great team," Luongo says. "It didn't finish the way we want and I don't think we try to think about that much now, but if anything, it was also a great experience for us. It was a great run and we had fun. What we have to try and do now is use that to our advantage going forward."
Luongo had just come off his second shutout of Boston in the final -- a 1-0 win in Game 5 -- when he made the remark that turned into a rallying cry for the Bruins: his "it's an easy save for me" assessment of the lone goal allowed by Tim Thomas. Luongo was lit up in Game 6 and the loser again to Thomas in Game 7.
In a recent interview with Radio-Canada.ca, Luongo said he now regrets the Game 5 remark: "If I could do it again, I wouldn't say it. I didn't want to create the buzz that it did. After the fifth game, I had never been so emotional and I got carried away."
During the Canucks' stop in Denver, Luongo said, "You live and learn. The bottom line is we didn't play well enough in those last two games. We couldn't come any closer to winning a Cup than that. It was tough, but, you know, we're still a real good team and we want to be there again."
The goalie that does the heavy lifting if the Canucks do return to the final is now Topic 1A in Vancouver. Vigneault, who became the franchise's all-time coaching wins leader (247) after the triumph over the Avalanche, is a man of many pet sayings. The Golden Retriever of his arsenal is, "The best players will play." That's about as much insight into the goalie situation as he's offering now. At the moment, Schneider, who has a better saves percentage (.920 to .896) and GAA (2.24 to 2.97) than Luongo, is the best player by numbers.
"I don't look at it as any kind of (controversy) situation like that," Schneider says. "It's a long season, with injuries and ups and downs. Lou and I have a solid relationship and try to help each other as much as we can."
So while Luongo may have lost his starting gig for the moment, he knows he doesn't lack for overall security. More opportunities will come, in Vancouver or elsewhere. He's been through too much to let it get him down.
"Biggest thing I've learned in this game?" he says. "You've got to try and have fun, no matter what."