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Mr. X Factor

April 02, 2007
April 02, 2007

Table of Contents
April 2, 2007

SI Players: LIFE ON AND OFF THE FIELD
2007 NCAA Tournament Final Four
Baseball
Pro Basketball
Hockey

Mr. X Factor

Uprooted from Florida, Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo has found his groove in Vancouver--and he just might shift the balance in the Western Conference playoffs

Brrrrrrrr. A chillcame over Gina Luongo as she spoke on the phone to her husband last June andlearned that the couple was in for a serious latitude adjustment. RobertoLuongo, then the star goaltender for the Florida Panthers, had just been tradedto the Vancouver Canucks, and he was crying as he broke the news from hisparents' Montreal home. Gina, who'd just pulled up to her parents' house insunny South Florida, tried to comfort him, but heading north for the winterdidn't sound like much fun to her, either. The next day Gina got even gloomierafter she looked at a map and realized that she and Roberto would be making adiagonal move across all of North America--no other two major pro sportsfranchises on the continent are so far apart. You've got to be kidding me, shesaid to herself. "They might as well have sent us to Alaska."

This is an article from the April 2, 2007 issue Original Layout

Nine months laterGina still hasn't embraced the rain and cold in Vancouver, or the 10-hourtravel days (sorry, no nonstop flights) to and from her hometown of CoralSprings, but she and Roberto are, it turns out, in the place they want to be.For the first time in his seven-year career Luongo is headed for the playoffs.He may also soon be the most pivotal player in the Western Conference'spostseason, the singular reason the otherwise ordinary Canucks can dream ofoutlasting the conference's elite into May or June. "If Louie gets on aroll, he can single-handedly change the outcome of a series," Vancouvercenter Trevor Linden says. "He's an intimidating guy. It took a while forus to realize that this guy is probably the biggest difference-maker in thegame, and he's on our side."

No NHL team westof New Jersey relies more on its netminder than the Canucks do. At week's endLuongo, an MVP and Vezina Trophy candidate, led the NHL with 43 wins and wassecond among full-time starters in save percentage to the Devils' MartinBrodeur with a .921 mark. His 2,006 total saves were the most in the West.Thanks largely to Luongo, Vancouver, which missed the playoffs last season, hadput together a league-best 28-5-6 run since Christmas and was perched atop theNorthwest Division. Says St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray, whose team wasbeaten by Luongo last month, "He makes them a definite Stanley Cupcontender."

The tall, rangyLuongo, who turns 28 on April 4, has made a hockey-obsessed city believe he'sthe cure to nearly four decades' worth of pent-up frustration. The Canucks havenever won a Stanley Cup, but the two netminders who got them to thefinals--Richard Brodeur (1982) and Kirk McLean ('94)--are still adored aroundBritish Columbia, the former referred to around town as King Richard. Now it'sall about King Louie, whose jersey outsells any other Canuck's more than 2 to1.

"They've had alot of goalies come and go here, and it's been kind of their Achilles'heel," says Vancouver defenseman Willie Mitchell, who grew up in nearbyPort McNeill. "They've never felt like they had that dominant guy. Louiehas a chance to be the one."

On a mid-Marchafternoon, as the Blues skated at GM Place the day before their game againstthe Canucks, Luongo sat in the luxury suite owned by the team's captain, leftwing Markus Naslund, and spied on the competition. In truth, he was lookingfurther down the road--he had playoff hockey on the brain. "I'm very firedup," Luongo said. "You just want these last regular-season games to flyby so we can get this going."

Though he isuntested in the postseason, Luongo, with his size (6'3", 205 pounds),athleticism, exquisite technique and fierce work ethic, has, in the minds ofmany of his peers, already joined three-time Cup winner Martin Brodeur as theclass of NHL goaltenders. Luongo is especially adept at covering ground and athis best resembles a sliding goalie in a tabletop hockey game, movinggracefully back and forth across the goalmouth while stopping virtually everyfirst shot that comes his way. With his glove, Luongo is the most deft Robertosince Clemente. "If you have a young goalie and want to teach him how toplay the position, you're going to watch how Louie does it," Linden says."You're not going to say that about a guy like Marty or [the Red Wings'Dominik] Hasek, because so much of what they do is on instincts andfeel."

As a child in theMontreal suburb of St. Leonard--the same one from which Brodeur, who's sevenyears older, hails--Luongo had to get in the net if he wanted to play streethockey with the big kids on the block. He began getting shelled by tennis ballsat the age of five and is still being peppered relentlessly as a pro. Pickedfourth overall by the New York Islanders in 1997 (at the time, the highest agoaltender had been drafted), Luongo played 24 games for New York in1999--2000. But after the Islanders took Rick DiPietro No. 1 overall in the '00draft, Luongo was traded to Florida, where he was almost immediately undersiege. In '03--04, when Luongo was a Vezina Trophy finalist despite going25-33-14, he set an NHL record with 2,303 saves; the 2,275 he made in '05--06rank second on the alltime list. "I felt like I had to be perfect, whichwas frustrating," Luongo says of playing with the Panthers. "If Iwasn't on top of my game, we had no chance."

Luongo, however,found happiness away from the rink. He'd met Gina, then an aesthetician, afternoticing her dining in her surgical scrubs at Pizza Time, the Italianrestaurant near the Panthers' practice rink that had become his daily lunchstop. Luongo asked one of the cooks who the pretty woman was. "That'sBobby's daughter," the cook answered, referring to Umberto Cerbone, PizzaTime's proprietor, who often came out of the kitchen to converse with Luongo inItalian. Gina's connection to the restaurant presented a problem. "I wasshy, and I was also worried about starting something that might not workout," Luongo says, laughing. "It could have messed with mymeals."

After marryingGina, Luongo, whose father, Antonio, came to Canada from Naples in the late1970s, had no desire to leave Florida--even though he was toiling for one ofthe league's most hapless franchises and even though his relationship with thenPanthers general manager Mike Keenan and other team officials was strained. InAugust 2005, coming off the lockout, Luongo was the first player ever taken toarbitration by his team. Luongo, whose contract had expired, had sought along-term deal; instead, his fate was decided by an arbitrator, who awarded himone year at $3.2 million. "They were always telling me I was theirfranchise player," Luongo says. "It was kind of a slap in theface."

Still, Luongo andFlorida appeared close to a five-year, $30 million pact last June. Luongo evensays he believed a deal was in place and that he was blindsided by the trade,but Keenan disagrees. "The bottom line is he wanted more money," Keenaninsists. "He made a business decision." Whatever went down, Keenan'sdecision to deal Luongo, defenseman Lukas Krajicek and a sixth-round draftchoice to the Canucks for star forward Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allenand goaltender Alex Auld seems destined to go down as one of the most lopsidedtrades in recent NHL history. Bertuzzi, who suffered a back injury early in theseason, played only seven games for the Panthers before being dealt to theDetroit Red Wings for future considerations on Feb. 27.

Luongo, who signeda four-year, $27 million contract after the trade, won't be leaving hisNorthwest outpost anytime soon. Given his importance to the team and the city,he knows he might as well get used to wearing heavy coats and enjoy the sublimesushi that's available on every street corner.

"It's hard tomeasure what he's done for us," Linden says. "There are nights we don'tplay well, and he bails us out--and we feel guilty. Then there are nights whenhe only faces 17 shots and he comes into the locker room and says, 'That wasboring.' He's a tough man to please."

Well, maybe notthat tough. The other night he and Gina were sitting in the kitchen of theircondominium in the chic Yaletown district enjoying a roasted chicken--Roberto,who is superstitious, brings home a fresh bird from the same local grocerystore each game day--when a TV announcer began talking up the Canucks'postseason prospects.

"You knowwhat?" Roberto said to Gina. "This is exactly what I've been waitingfor."

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The Panthers' trade of Luongo, in a deal that broughtthem Bertuzzi, seems destined to go down as one of the MOST LOPSIDED in recentNHL history.
PHOTOPhotograph by Jeff Vinnick/Getty ImagesPHOTOPAUL SANCYA/APONE OF AMILLION
The rangy Luongo, the Western Conference leader in total saves, has alwaysthrived on a heavy workload.
PHOTOKIM STALLKNECHT PHOTOGRAPHYFOODLOVERS
Roberto and Gina first met during one of his lunch stops at her father'srestaurant.