Like many cities with a history of mediocre NHL teams, Vancouver also has a tradition of heroic goaltenders. Glen Hanlon, Richard Brodeur and Kirk McLean count among those who learned their trade one 40-shot night at a time, lifting merely passable West Coast squads to the level of their more gifted opponents. But not Roberto Luongo. The self-confident Montrealer landed in B.C. a bona fide star, with no assembly required. Just like that, he became the centrepiece of a team that seemed destined, finally, to bring the Stanley Cup to Vancouver.
There’s no denying the Canucks had the makings of a powerhouse. And there’s no denying Luongo has under-delivered. Supported by the most talented lineup ever to pull on Vancouver sweaters, the rangy goaltender has faltered just when his team needed him most, and never more so than during the 2011 Stanley Cup final. Key saves too often occurred at the other end of the rink, where former minor-leaguer Tim Thomas weaved a magical spring for the brawny Boston Bruins. With each dubious loss, Luongo’s dour, defiant persona seemed more out of place. At one point, he actually criticized Thomas’s handling of a Canucks’ scoring play—then proceeded to blow his next game. Fate, it would seem, had developed a sense of humour.
Alas for Luongo, Vancouverites had not. On June 13, as their team played Game 6 in Boston, Canuck partisans watched in their home arena as Luongo surrendered three goals within three minutes during the first period, and cheered when coach Alain Vigneault yanked him. It was the fourth time Luongo had been pulled during the ’11 playoffs, the second time in the final. Two nights later, in Game 7, he looked soft on the opening goal by Patrice Bergeron, sliding backward as the puck trickled in. The Canucks never recovered, and afterward, as the Bruins drank from the Cup, Luongo seemed reluctant to shoulder his share of blame. “It’s a team game,” he said when asked how much responsibility he took for the loss. “We all want to be better. That’s the bottom line.”
It’s unfair, of course, to pin an entire wasted playoff run on Luongo, who twice shut out Boston during the final and was the difference in several Canucks playoff wins. Over five seasons, he has led his team into the playoffs four times, posted a 2.34 goals-against average, and has been nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s best goaltender three times. Those numbers were enough to persuade Canucks management he was every bit the blue chipper they landed in 2006 in a trade. In 2009, GM Mike Gillis rewarded him with a 12-year, front-loaded contract extension, which kicked in last season and will pay him $64 million before it expires in 2022.
Now, after 40 Cupless seasons, Vancouverites grow irked at the mention of Vezina nominations. They’re quickly forgetting Luongo’s solid performance two years ago in Canada’s home-soil Olympic hockey victory. When the 32-year-old got off to a slow start this fall, winning just two of his first six games, the Vancouver Province ran a risible editorial suggesting the Canucks trade him to Tampa Bay for Vincent Lecavalier, a forward with an even more onerous contract.
The fans, meanwhile, are in no mood to forgive. On Oct. 18, as Luongo allowed four goals in 19 shots against the New York Rangers, they either booed his mistakes or served up sarcastic “Bronx cheers” when he made routine saves. Even when he improved, winning six of his next nine and averaging 2.33 goals against, the reception at Rogers Arena was cool.
So a kind of guilty relief set in on Nov. 13 when he went down with an undisclosed minor injury, as if both goaltender and fans needed a moment to take stock: if Luongo’s shaky play continues, after all, that fat contract will soon become untradable. And 11 more seasons is an awfully long time to spend booing a goalie.