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How do you solve a problem like Roberto Luongo?

If he’s going to win again in Vancouver, Luongo will have to rebuild his game and his confidence


 

He’s never been one to pour out his soul, so one might reasonably interpret the phone call Roberto Luongo placed on April 21 as a full-on cry for help. After two straight blowout losses to the Chicago Blackhawks, Vancouver’s superstar netminder had lost the starting role in Game 6 of the Western Conference quarter-finals to his backup, Cory Schneider. Now, with the Hawks threatening to erase a 3-0 deficit in the series, Canucks coach Alain Vigneault was having a public crisis of confidence in his $10-million-a-year goaltender. Luongo’s future hung in the balance.

So he reached out to his brother Leo, a goaltending instructor in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, and like any good coach, Leo steered the conversation toward the positive. Roberto’s recent failures went unmentioned, as did the attendant pressures of his epic 12-year, $64-million contract. “We talked about him staying focused and sharp and being ready,” Leo told Maclean’s. “In hockey, you never know what’s going to happen.”

As it turned out, Schneider went down in Game 6 with leg cramps, and Luongo entered the game in the third to make a series of impressive stops in an overtime loss. Then, in Game 7, he was brilliant—31 saves on 32 shots, including a cross-crease gem in overtime on Hawks sniper Patrick Sharp. Leo Luongo shuddered at the thought of that shot going in. “Roberto could have ended up getting traded,” he said. “It could have shattered his reputation.”

Flash forward seven weeks, and Luongo’s reputation is in tatters anyway. He allowed 18 goals over four losses in the Stanley Cup final, and got yanked in two of those games. He provoked a mindless spat with Tim Thomas, the eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and when the chips were truly down, he failed to deliver the big stops. Luongo is by no means the only reason Vancouver lost, but as anger mounts over the team’s wasted playoff run, the question implied by his collapse in Chicago seems newly relevant: can he recover?

We’d be fools to write him off, of course, because Luongo has a history of defying expectation. This is the guy, after all, who got his start when the goalie for his atom team in St. Leonard, Que., failed to show up for a game; Roberto, then a forward, volunteered to man the crease and shut out his opponents 1-0, then won his next game 2-1. From there, he set a star’s course through minor and junior hockey, culminating in the New York Islanders choosing him fourth overall in the 1997 NHL draft—the highest a goalie had ever been picked.

In Long Island, and later with the Florida Panthers, Luongo routinely stole games from superior teams while putting up numbers that left rival GMs in awe. In 2003-2004, he recorded a .931 save percentage and set an NHL record with 2,303 stops, on a Florida team that won just 28 games. Zen-cool was his trademark, and hopes in Vancouver soared when the Canucks traded for him in the summer of 2006. Blessed with budding offensive stars in the Sedin twins, the Canucks had been hobbled by mediocre playoff goaltending. Luongo looked like the missing piece of their puzzle.

Today, confidence in him no longer registers in measurable quantities, while his aloof, at times haughty persona hurts his cause. When he shrugged off the three catastrophic road games during this year’s final, one got the impression that he simply didn’t care enough to win. Later, as the Bruins celebrated their Cup win, he seemed reluctant to take on blame. “It’s a team game,” he said when asked how much responsibility he took as one of team leaders. “We all want to be better. That’s the bottom line. We’re not going to point fingers at one individual” (he did add later: “We all want to step it up a notch, starting with myself”).

These sorts of responses played badly among fans, who vented their impatience on message boards, Twitter and call-in shows throughout the playoffs. When Luongo was pulled in Game 4 in Boston after allowing four goals on 20 shots, spectators watching the game on the scoreboard at Rogers Arena cheered.

Gilles Lupien, the Montreal-based agent who has been with Luongo since he played midget hockey, acknowledges the goalie’s appraising, impassive mien. But he says it should not be mistaken for arrogance. “From the time he was 15 years old, he would sit across the table, just looking at you,” Lupien says. “You could tell he was thinking to himself, ‘Who are you, really? What do you really want?’ ” That posture, says Lupien, is born of Luongo’s desire to avoid bad decisions, and ultimately to win. In 2006, he turned down a five-year, $30-million contract offer from the Panthers, citing concerns about the team’s dedication to bringing home a Cup. “I play to be in the playoffs,” he said at the time. “That’s my main goal. I don’t want to commit myself to a team for five years without knowing for sure that we will have a successful club for five years.”

He got just that in Vancouver, a team that won four division titles in the next five years. Yet the Canucks got bumped in the second round of the playoffs three times during that period, then lost in this year’s final. The gold medal Luongo helped win for Team Canada at the Vancouver Olympics quieted his critics for a time, but pressure rose anew this year as his whopping 12-year, front-loaded contract extension kicked in, paying him $10 million in 2010-11. Luongo had described the deal as a sign that Canucks management and ownership would “do whatever it takes to win a Stanley Cup.” It was a tad presumptuous for a guys who’d never seen the third round of the playoffs, and if anything, it might now be considered an impediment to a championship.

That much, at least, might be start to sink in. After the Canucks’ 4-0 loss in Game 7, Luongo meditated on the difficulty of reaching the big prize, something he’d previously assumed was within his reach. “I think playoffs is probably the hardest thing, the last couple of months, that I’ve ever had to do in my professional career,” he told ESPN.com. “I think mentally it’s just a grind the whole time. I said it, I don’t remember which game it was, that it’s much tougher mentally than physically more than anything else.”

None of this is to say Luongo will never hoist a Cup. But if he’s going to do so in Canucks jersey, he faces a series of unaccustomed tasks—examining his flaws, rebuilding his game and repairing his confidence. For a man not given to self-doubt, it won’t be easy. If he hasn’t already, he’d best put that brother on speed-dial.


 

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