A new Luongo

Derek Leung/Getty

Roberto Luongo opens up about why the pressure won’t break him. Not anymore.

A total team effort. That’s what it takes for the Vancouver Canucks to lose at home to 29th-placed Edmonton in late January. But Roberto Luongo, in what is his post-game ritual, is the one standing amid the forest of microphones and digital recorders. He’s explaining how the game-winner—a one-timer from the top of the crease—was basically his fault.

Sure, garbage-goal artisan Ryan Smyth had walked out of the corner, right past Vancouver winger Jannik Hansen, and made a beeline for Luongo’s post on the play. And yes, Canucks blueliner Alex Edler had tried to block Smyth’s pass, leaving Jesse Joensuu wide open in the low slot. And yes, Edler’s partner, Jason Garrison, read the play late. An eyelash quicker, and he could have marked Joensuu. As with so many of the 3,822 goals scored in the regular season last year, there were at least three breakdowns before Joensuu’s point-blank shot rocketed off Luongo’s left pad and trickled into the net for the third goal in a 4–2 loss. But the puck stops with Luongo, a fact he has come to embrace. “I’ve got to come up with a save there,” he says. “It was a tight game, and the team needed it. I’ve got to make a better play.”

After the media crowd has dispersed, one reporter wonders if Luongo has simply resigned himself to saying the right things at the right times, just to get the fans and media off his back in this hypersensitive market. Or does he really believe what he says? Following a little back and forth on a goal scored by an unattended player literally standing at the top of Luongo’s crease, the reporter offers up a slightly irreverent, “What are you going to do?” Luongo’s countenance changes slightly. His eyes get serious as he says, in a quiet but stern voice, “Make a save. That’s what.” And with that, the conversation ends.

Usually, it works the other way around, with the media deciding a goalie “has to make that save,” and the goalie bemoaning our lack of understanding from the vantage point of the press box. Not now, though. Not with the ever-accountable Luongo. “There is a difference between a bad goal and coming up with a big save for your team,” Luongo says a few days later. “I didn’t say I let in a bad goal, but at the same time, I needed to make a big save at that moment to keep the game tied—and I didn’t.”

That’s about as candid a quote as you’re going to get from an NHL player of Luongo’s import. It might even be the kind you end a story with. But in this case, it’s a beginning, because how Roberto Luongo got to a place where he’s comfortable enough to criticize his own play, even when doing so opens him up to more questions from his detractors, is another narrative entirely.

This has been one hell of a ride in Vancouver for the man favoured to start in goal for Team Canada in Sochi. From franchise saviour and, in 2008, the first goalie awarded the “C” in seven decades, to a broken man following a 7–5, series-ending loss to Chicago in 2009. “I let my teammates down tonight. That’s something that is going to take a while to get over,” he said then, before a wave of emotion forced him to walk out of the scrum in tears. He received only a minor share of the credit for winning gold in 2010 at Vancouver, but was assigned heaps of blame in the aftermath of a game-seven loss to Boston in the 2011 Stanley Cup final.

The day after game five, Luongo was standing in a departure terminal at the Vancouver International Airport complaining about how he’d been getting no respect from Bruins goalie Tim Thomas. He’d been “pumping his tires ever since the series started” and hadn’t heard “one nice thing he had to say about me.” Four days later, the Cup was lost.

This Vancouver Canucks group will never revisit the Stanley Cup final in its current form, and every Canuck bears his own unique scar from that series. “That loss was tough on a lot of us,” says defenceman Kevin Bieksa. “It took us a year and a bit to get over it. The following year, it seemed like we were just going through the motions. It hung over our heads, the way we lost games six and seven.”

But none took it as hard as Luongo. That he actually cared what the opposing goalie thought of him does not exactly typify the stable, rock-solid figure a team or country can lean on and rally around. “I felt like I was focused in that moment. I wasn’t thinking about anything else but playing. But I can’t get consumed with things other than what’s going on on the ice. That’s going to be my biggest regret until I retire, unless I’m able to win one.” Somehow, a smart, funny guy had forged a reputation of being a sullen, brooding figure. And he despised it.

In training camp the next season, that perception started to change. “Note to self: turkey sausage….bad idea before going on the ice!!!!!” That first tweet from the then-unknown @strombone1 signalled the beginning of a new Luongo.

Since the disappointment of 2011, there have been a couple of early playoff exits, an expected trade that never happened and a year spent sharing the net amicably with Cory Schneider, only to watch Schneider get the crucial playoff starts. Luongo was forced to return to Vancouver this past fall as the No. 1, knowing full well that both he and the Canucks had mentally divorced each other before that shocking trade of Schneider at the 2013 draft.

Through it all, @strombone1 has tweeted away with apparent glee, endearing himself to fans and media alike with sharp, self-deprecating commentary that, many times, has said exactly what everyone was thinking. “He’s gone through a lot over the past couple of years,” says Canucks and Team Canada defenceman Dan Hamhuis. “Whatever has happened, he’s dealt with it in a way that’s made him better. It would have been easy to make himself worse in that situation. To be negative and upset; to blame people. He found a way to get through that.”

This may be the first time in the history of social media that someone’s reputation has actually been improved by his actions on Twitter. “It just gave him an outlet to vent a little bit,” Bieksa says. “To show his sense of humour, make light of situations that were tough. He’s a fun guy, and you didn’t see that the first few years here in Vancouver.”

Luongo has stopped denying that he is the voice behind the @strombone1 account, though he refuses to cop to the origin of the name. It goes back to the kids in Saint-Léonard, the borough of Montreal where Luongo grew up, but its meaning remains unknown. “A lot of people, especially around the Canucks organization, weren’t too sure about it when I started,” he says of his tweeting. “I learned, made a few mistakes early on, but it’s all fun for me. You get some hate tweets once in a while, but it’s all good.”

You might get a message back from @strombone1 with a thank you, if your words are kind. The new Roberto Luongo won’t hack you back if you’re rude, the same way he won’t let a writer’s—or Tim Thomas’s—words cut him anymore. Bieksa is right, Luongo admits—his skin is thicker now. He doesn’t sweat things the way he once did. “I’m actually able to read things written about me that aren’t very nice and laugh about it,” Luongo says. “There’s nothing you can do. Some people will criticize you no matter what. It comes with the territory.”

Perhaps then, Canadians—especially those in Vancouver—should give themselves a pat on the back. The hockey world’s utter fascination with a goaltending controversy that generated more headlines in one year than most goalies get in a lifetime has steeled Luongo. Today, he’ll tell you, he’s impervious to pressure. There is nothing that could happen in Sochi that would be more difficult to deal with than the dragons he has already slain. “In a way, you want that pressure there,” Luongo says. “I find it elevates your game. If I can bring some of that to some other guys for whom maybe it’s their first time, or who aren’t as experienced, that’s great.”

Suddenly, it’s Luongo who sounds a tad irreverent. In a good way. “Obviously, we all care,” he says. “That goes without saying. But you have to go out and not care about facing defeat, and just be able to play. If there’s no pressure, you’re playing in a beer league.”

After the soap opera with the Canucks, how does a population that is manic about hockey invest in Luongo? Well, if you are one of those still fretting over his pedigree heading into Sochi, consider this: Luongo has played in two Memorial Cups, two World Junior Championships, four World Championships and two Olympic Games, and gave Canada some stunning relief work that helped win the 2004 World Cup. He went to game seven of the Stanley Cup final, lost, and has come out the other end of that storm not just intact, but mentally stronger than before. “He’s gotten better and better at absorbing the blame,” says Bieksa, a friend since the goaltender arrived from Florida in 2006. “He would dwell on it for weeks and months. Now, he moves on. He’s a professional.”

Luongo is not just “a” professional. In Sochi, he will once again be “our” professional, assuming the role between the pipes, the Maple Leaf on his chest. Carey Price opens the tournament as starter 1B to Luongo’s 1A, and if history is our guide, will get the opportunity to prove he is worthy of playing the big games. Canadian coach Mike Babcock’s stated plan is to start different goalies in game one versus Norway and game two against Austria—almost certainly Luongo and Price—then pick one and give him the opportunity to run the table. But that will be Price only if Luongo’s play leaves the door open a crack.

No. 3 goaltender Mike Smith figures to play only if Canada suffers a Turin-like implosion, a prospect Luongo doesn’t let inside his head. Not anymore. “The Olympics, it’s about enjoying the two weeks,” he says. “It’s not only about hockey, it’s about representing Canada, being part of the Olympic village…Playing hockey and trying to win a gold for your country? It’s just a bonus.”

Sounds like something @strombone1 would say.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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