In case you’re unaware of the Roberto Luongo saga, it breaks down as such: The star goaltender signed long-term, big money contract in the summer of 2009. In the spring of 2011, he lost the starting job to the younger Cory Schneider. Luongo asked for a trade, but general manager Mike Gillis had difficulty finding teams willing to take on a 33-year-old goalie with 10 years left on his deal and Luongo stuck around Vancouver for the shortened 2013 season as a backup. On draft day, Luongo went silent after Schneider was traded to the New Jersey Devils in exchange for the 9th overall pick.
That’s all we know for sure. When James Duthie interviewed Roberto Luongo in three brief segments shown on TSN’s Sportscentre this past weekend, there was nothing revealing. We’re about three weeks from the beginning of training camps coast to coast which comes as a blessing for those of us tired of the most over-covered story of the offseason.
I’m not sure why Luongo gets such a disproportionate share of coverage, but reporters at Team Canada’s Olympic orientation camp Sunday afternoon had a knack for making half their questions directed at Luongo or in reference to Luongo in some way. He’s an interesting character, whose humour on Twitter has won him a lot of fans over the last season, and one of the few NHLers who will answer questions honestly even when an honest answer gets him into trouble.
Luongo told Duthie that he was in shock and blacked out when he was told in an in-person visit by Vancouver Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini to his home, that the team had traded Schneider. Schneider was a former first round pick who had spent years in the minor leagues and as a backup as the Canucks’ No. 1 prospect, and has put up obscene save percentage and quality start numbers in his limited NHL time, and Luongo thought that Schneider deserved his shot as a starter in Vancouver. Schneider, too, deserves some sympathy for this mess of a situation, because he had done everything right in his development to be a long-term starter in Vancouver, and because now he finds himself as a backup again behind the legendary Martin Brodeur (although I doubt he won’t have had that starting job claimed by the midway point in the season).
The story has some interesting characteristics and characters, but despite being called a “melodramatic saga” in some corners of the tabloid-sphere, there isn’t really a lot of meat on the bone, and the dozens of passionate sportswriters and bloggers in Vancouver love to analyze anything said or not said by Luongo in the media, any of his tweets, and pick up on hearsay as fact. For a while, you got the impression that this town truly believed Luongo’s silence in the media between May and this past weekend was an indication he didn’t want to return to Vancouver and honour the remaining nine years and $40.5-million on his contract with the club.
It just seems simpler than that. I’m not close to Luongo or the Canucks, but any issue that could have possibly arisen between the two sides doesn’t seem big enough that it couldn’t have been quashed by Aquilini, Luongo, and general manager Mike Gillis acting like adults and talking things over a pitcher of beer. I can get why Luongo would want out, and it would be extremely frustrating to hear your name pop up in trade rumours every week without any substance to them. For a calendar year, his situation was in limbo, and Gillis kept mentioning the potential suitors and mystery teams involved in an effort to boost his trade value. The ultimate trade-tease came on the trade deadline of 2013, as Luongo told Duthie, he was rushed off the ice to sign off on his no-trade clause when Gillis walked into the room and said the deal was off. He then told the assembled media that “my contract sucks” and went into exile.
But I think eventually, Team Grown Ups did prevail. Luongo shook the Internet one morning when he fired his agent Gilles Lupien and went with Pat Brisson. Lupien had some harsh words for Gillis at the time, but Brisson merely said that Luongo was committed to being the Canucks goaltender for the foreseeable future and would be in training camp. Ultimately, his happiness will depend on the success of this Canucks roster, which hasn’t seen an injection of offensive talent for quite some time. Luongo and the defence will be the key aspects to the Canucks this season and it remains to be seen if they’re good enough to compensate for the offence that looked absolutely stagnant last season and for the second half of the 2012 season.
Still, no matter how well Luongo plays, as soon as the team falters (and it’s unreasonable to think the Canucks will be a playoff contender from now until Luongo retires—such is the nature of hockey) his name will be discussed in trade rumours as the salary cap increases to the point where his $5.3-million cap hit doesn’t really factor in anymore.
That is the “adversity” Luongo faces. The story hasn’t ended, but we will get a reprieve as Luongo gets to play some hockey regularly starting in September and competes for an Olympic job. Team Canada coach Mike Babcock was confident in his abilities talking to the press on Sunday and said Luongo’s inclusion on the orientation roster was an easy choice. Even at 34, it’s hard to imagine Luongo not being the front-runner for the starting job in Sochi. No Canadian-born goaltender has a higher save percentage over the last three seasons than Luongo, so the question remains how he ages.
When you think of a “saga” or a “drama”, as this story has been frequently described as, you think back to the role of theatre in shaping our opinions about sports. The next theatrical motif would be “redemption” and I have to think that’s partially why everybody is suddenly including Luongo on their prospective Team Canada Olympic rosters when names like Carey Price, Cam Ward, Mike Smith and Corey Crawford were brought up throughout the 2013 season. Luongo has now been cast as the tragic hero on the road to redemption. Such is sports.