THE FIRST TO GO FOURTH ROBERTO LUONGO WAS DRAFTED EARLIER THAN ANY OTHER NETMINDER IN NHL HISTORY. DOES THAT MEAN THE LEAGUE IS FINALLY CHANGING THE WAY IT SIZES UP GOALIES?

June 29, 1997

A few years ago the finished basement of the Luongo home in St.
Leonard, Que., near Montreal, was supposed to be for rent. Lina
Luongo had looked at all that unused space and seen dollar
signs. So she cleaned up the area and turned it into an
efficiency apartment. The only problem was that when her eldest
son, Roberto, gazed at the newly cleared area he saw what
probably all Canadian boys would have seen: an indoor hockey
rink. Before Mom could sign up a tenant, Roberto had donned his
goaltending pads, younger brothers Leo and Fabio had brought in
a net from the street and, playing in their sneakers, with a
hard plastic ball, they had wrecked the place.

Windows were smashed, the carpet was torn up, and the walls had
so many holes from errant shots that they looked like cheese
graters. The boys would pick their favorite NHL teams and play a
full-contact, seven-game Stanley Cup finals. The entire house
would shake. One time Tony Luongo came home from his job as a
truck driver and yelled downstairs for the game to stop; Roberto
hollered back, "But Dad, someday I'm going to play in the NHL."

Last Saturday at the NHL draft in Pittsburgh, the 18-year-old
Luongo was chosen fourth overall by the New York Islanders, the
highest a goaltender has ever been selected. The Boston Bruins
took Sault Ste. Marie center Joe Thornton from the Ontario
Hockey League with the No. 1 pick, but it was the Islanders who
made history with Luongo, a lanky and lightning-quick
butterfly-style goalie who was named the top prospect in the
Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in March. Now the kid who used
to play hockey in the basement will be charged with helping the
Islanders get out of the Atlantic Division cellar.

"Every goalie growing up dreams of being drafted by the NHL,"
said Luongo, who sat next to his mother in the Pittsburgh Civic
Arena and playfully elbowed his younger brothers after his name
was called. "My dream was to be chosen higher than fifth so
that, maybe, I can help to change the philosophy on drafting
goalies."

Before last Saturday no netminder had been selected higher than
fifth--the Pittsburgh Penguins' Tom Barrasso was the last
goaltender taken in that slot, by the Buffalo Sabres in
1983--and in 28 years of the draft in its current form, only
eight goalies had been taken in the top 10. It's a strange
anomaly that in a sport dominated by goaltending, no one playing
that position has ever been selected No. 1, 2 or 3 (chart, page
55). Imagine the NFL never having a quarterback drafted in the
top three spots.

"It's such an important ingredient to success in this league,"
says the Islanders' director of player personnel, Gordie Clark.
"Yet every year a million teams are looking for goalies, and you
want to say to them, 'You had your chance at the draft.' But for
some reason people in this league will give young forwards and
defensemen the benefit of the doubt, but not goalies."

One reason is that it's difficult to gauge from his junior
hockey performance just how good a goalie really is. A
prospect's stats might jump off the charts because he's stopping
50 pucks a night, when only a fraction of those shots are
NHL-caliber. Also, players are drafted so young that they have
not matured physically and mentally--a potential minefield for
teams that draft goalies, who, upon reaching the NHL, face
pressure as intense as any in sports. Finally, there is a
significant turnover of coaches and general managers in the
league, and draft mistakes tend to stick out like blue-haloed
pucks on television. No one wants to bet his 401(k) on a teenage
goalie, so teams fall back on safer, more conventional thinking.

Luongo's agent, Gilles Lupien, a former defenseman who won two
Stanley Cups with the Montreal Canadiens in 1978 and '79, says
the attitude that has caused goalies to be ignored at the top of
the draft is changing. "It used to be that you'd pick sides, and
you'd put the last guy not picked, the fat guy with glasses, in
net," he says. "Now these guys are the finest athletes in the
game."

The 6'2", 185-pound Luongo fits into that category. When he took
up the sport at age eight, he wanted to play goalie, but his
parents demanded that he first learn how to skate. Three years
later, after he was cut as a forward by his peewee team, Luongo
became a netminder. At 15 he joined Montreal-Bourassa, a midget
team known as the cradle of goaltenders for developing the New
Jersey Devils' Martin Brodeur, the Toronto Maple Leafs' Felix
Potvin, the Los Angeles Kings' Stephane Fiset and the Islanders'
Eric Fichaud, among others. It was there, in a tiny, nondescript
rink in northeast Montreal, that Luongo began to blossom. Under
the direction of goalie coach Mario Baril and butterfly guru
Francois Allaire, a longtime assistant coach with the Canadiens
who is now a consultant with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, Luongo
honed his instincts around the net.

The mental part of the game, which some former goalies say
amounts to 80% of the job, has always come naturally to Luongo.
He speaks English, French and Italian and is cocky enough to
yell at his teammates in all three languages. "I never put
pressure on myself to the point where the game is no longer
fun," he says. "It's always a challenge, but it's fun, not a job."

After a season in midget, Luongo returned in May '95 to St.
Leonard, an area known in Montreal as Little Italy, and boldly
challenged his brothers to a game in the basement. "He didn't
wear [leg] pads, he just grabbed a glove and a blocker," says
Leo, 12. "And he stopped everything. We stopped playing him
after that."

That summer Val d'Or made Luongo the highest-drafted goalie in
QMJHL history by selecting him with the second pick. Last season
Luongo led the team to the semifinals of the league playoffs
with a 3.12 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage.
During a seven-game winning streak in the regular season, he had
a 1.86 GAA and a .943 save percentage. Luongo also sent tapes of
his games to Allaire. His former goalie mentor, who helped
Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche develop into a star when
he played for the Canadiens, corrected flaws in Luongo's game
and encouraged him to be more aggressive and challenge shooters
by coming out of the net.

The tutelage paid off in February during a game for top
prospects in the Canadian Hockey League, when Luongo stopped 14
of 15 shots and made some spectacular saves that had Don Cherry,
the former NHL coach who guided Luongo's opponents in that game,
comparing him to Ken Dryden. After the match Frank Bonello, the
director of the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, proclaimed Luongo
to be a "franchise goalie."

"We kept looking and couldn't find one thing wrong with this
kid," says Clark, who played with the Bruins for two seasons in
the mid-'70s. "How is his glove, how does he handle rebounds,
does he leave the crease, is he wacky like some goalies, is he
smart and tough and athletic? We went right down the list for
goalies, and we just kept checking things off in the positive."

Not many positive things have happened to the Islanders since
they won four Stanley Cups from 1979-80 through '82-83. Probably
a year or two away from helping the NHL club, Luongo is one of a
handful of recent draftees who could put the Islanders back
among the Eastern Conference elite. First there's the matter of
working out the multimillion-dollar contract that goes along
with being the highest goalie ever taken in the draft, though
Luongo has said he wants to get the deal done quickly.

Maybe he's in a rush to pay Mom for all that lost rent.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER SIBBALD [Roberto Luongo] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Roy wasn't drafted until the third round. [Patrick Roy in game]

OVERLOOKED

No goaltender has been chosen first overall since the NHL draft
began in 1969. Here is our list of the top 10 goalies who have
been selected.

PLAYER YEAR DRAFTED OVERALL PICK TEAM

BILLY SMITH 1970 59 KINGS
Among the best money goaltenders ever; won four Cups with
Islanders

MIKE LIUT 1976 56 BLUES
Had 25 shutouts; won 294 games for three teams in 13 seasons

ANDY MOOG 1980 132 OILERS
Highest winning percentage (.629) among active goalies

GRANT FUHR 1981 8 OILERS
Acrobatic netminder won four Cups with Edmonton in the 1980s

MIKE VERNON 1981 56 FLAMES
Won Cups with Calgary ('88-89) and Detroit ('96-97)

DOMINIK HASEK* 1983 199 BLACKHAWKS
NHL MVP in '96-97; first goaltender to win that award since '61-62

PATRICK ROY 1984 51 CANADIENS
Three Cups, two playoff MVP awards, tops alltime postseason win
list (97)

MIKE RICHTER 1985 28 RANGERS
Won Cup in '94; led U.S. to upset of Canada in '96 World Cup

BILL RANFORD 1985 52 BRUINS
Postseason MVP for Edmonton's Cup-winning '89-90 team

MARTIN BRODEUR 1990 20 DEVILS
1.88 goals-against in '96-97 best in 25 years; led New Jersey to
Cup in '95

*Eastern Europeans were typically drafted late because, until
about 1990, NHL teams were usually unable to bring those players
to North America.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)