CALGARY – Over the years we have met goalies that were best described as a “head case.” The Bipolar goaler, Roman Cechmanek, comes to mind, as does a laundry list of others in hockey’s flakiest position.
But seldom, if ever, have we witnessed a hockey city lose its collective cool the way Vancouver did over its netminding situation, while the two goalies – Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider – remained relatively stable throughout.
So perhaps the question on Sunday afternoon for Luongo should not have been, “How are you going to handle your return to Vancouver as the unquestioned starter this fall?” But rather, “How will the fan base and media handle it?”
“It’s not that I wanted out of Vancouver so bad. We all saw what happened, for the last few years, and I just felt it was time to move on. That’s it,” said a calm, well-spoken Luongo on Sunday at opening day of the Team Canada Orientation Camp.
Of the five players at the dais – left to right they were Rick Nash, Patrice Bergeron, Shea Weber, Luongo and Sidney Crosby – only one was doused with personal questions regarding his own team and career. Luongo answered each and every one politely and in full sentences, like the pro he is.
He knows that he’ll soon be telling interviewers that he has addressed all of those questions and wishes to move on, so this was an exercise in doing just that: swallowing hard and enduring a process that even had Crosby shaking his head.
“It’s just something as a professional you have to deal with and there’s no real way to teach that,” said Crosby. “It’s just experience. I can’t relate to his situation at all, but I can relate to adversity and learning from it, and it’s hard to see at the time, but eventually you’re a lot better off for having gone through it.
“I feel for him having to answer these questions. I’m sure it’s not something he wants to talk about. But that’s what we deal with as professional hockey players.”
Soon enough, Luongo will get back to being the Canucks No. 1, and the early favourite for the Team Canada starting job. But not until he spends a few words on how that marriage counselling is going between he and the Canucks.
Is he happy to be heading back to Vancouver?
“Yeah, I don’t think it matters,” was his tepid response. “I’m happy to be playing and being a starter. That’s what matters for now, and that’s what I’m focused on. At the end of the day, that’s all you really need, right?”
Luongo, wearing a t-shirt, his hair shorter and slicked back in suave Italian fashion, wasn’t altogether sure whether his play last season had taken him out of the running for the Team Canada job. Or, would he get the chance to re-establish himself again this fall?
“A bit of both, I think,” he decided. “I was a backup last year, so you know, you start to wonder certain things, but I obviously knew the first half of this season was going to be really important, so that’s what I kept telling myself in the back of my mind. Not to think too much about it, that things will sort themselves out and I’d have another opportunity to re-establish myself.”
He was clearly floored on draft day when Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini showed up at Luongo’s Florida home and apprised him of the fact Schneider would be traded to New Jersey. Luongo had turned the page on Vancouver, as any of us would have in that situation, and it’s no stretch to surmise he was both looking forward to a new adventure elsewhere and is disappointed to be returning to Vancouver.
Just as Luongo handled himself with the utmost professionalism – as Vancouver GM Mike Gillis so famously mishandled Luongo’s situation last season – so too will he be a pro when training camp begins, and the puck drops on the 2013-14 season.
“I mean, listen,” he explained. “You go through stuff throughout your life and your career, and you try to learn from them. You try to get stronger from them, and I think over the course of the last year I’ve been through a few things, and hopefully got some experience out of it, made me a better player, a better person.
“So, right now, I just want to play hockey, doesn’t matter where it is. I’m happy to be starting again, and I want to focus on playing hockey and being ready.”
A fresh start in Vancouver, and perhaps even another run for Team Canada, where one of his biggest fans just happens to be the head coach.
Mike Babcock would not list Luongo as being at the top of his five-man depth chart. But by the time he’d finished speaking on the topic, one was left with the distinct impression that he almost certainly is, this early in the process.
“What Lou has going for him is that he’s won in the past,” Babcock began. “I’ve been with him twice – at the 2004 world championships and in 2010 – and he wins every time. So he’s got that confidence in himself and he’s been through a tumultuous time and I thought handled it with extreme class and professionalism.
“That’s got to make him feel good about who he is, and I’m actually proud of him the way he’s handled himself. He’s been fantastic. But he’s here like everyone else, you want to get off to a good start if you’re a goaltender.”
Luongo has already accomplished that. Another interview like this one at Canucks camp, and he can stop talking about the separation, and focus on stopping pucks – the one part of his career that he can still control.