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The long goodbye to our franchise's greatest goaltender.
Roberto Luongo became a Canuck on June 23, 2006.
I was working at a radio station and was in the middle of packing up the truck for an event when one of the on-air girls handed me a page from the morning paper and asked how to pronounce the name of the Italian guy pictured with the curly hair. "Oh, that's Roberto Luongo," I replied. I took only a glance at the page and noticed there was also a photo of Todd Bertuzzi, but thought nothing of it; I'm not very attentive at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, especially if I'm at work.
(You will note that the trade went down on a Friday, and I didn't hear about it until the next day when it was already printed in the paper. Ah, the days before Twitter. That would NEVER happen now.)
In the truck on the way to the event, through the radio I hear the on-air girl say that Todd Bertuzzi has been traded from the Vancouver Canucks to the Florida Panthers in exchange for Roberto Luongo. She doesn't like the trade because she thought Bertuzzi was "really cute." I almost roll the truck because I'm both in disbelief and doing some sort of spastic happy dance with the steering wheel. "How did we just trade a BUM like Bertuzzi for a SUPERSTAR goaltender!? Dave Nonis is a genius!" are words I actually thought.
That line of thinking wasn't far removed from the collective consciousness of Canucks fans at the time. There was a palpable excitement around the notion that finally, after all these years, Vancouver had an elite goaltender again. Years of watching the likes of Dan Cloutier, Arturs Irbe, Kevin Weekes, Garth Snow, and Martin Brochu fumble around in the net like a 15-year-old trying to open his first condom was utterly embarrassing. We'd been stumbling through the desert, delirious with thirst, and we hadn't just happened upon a shallow puddle of water, we'd found a Las Vegas water fountain.
At the time, nothing about Roberto Luongo appeared to be a gamble. He was without a doubt an elite goaltender, held back from greatness only by the broke and brutal team he backstopped in Florida. Everyone expected him to shine in Vancouver, and in his first season in 2006-07 he was other-worldy. I remember watching a glove save he made in his very first game against the Detroit Red Wings and simply thinking "holy shit, it's ON." It was the birth of "Luongod". If not for Martin Brodeur having a career year and pitching a miraculous 12 shutouts that same season, Luongo would have a Vezina Trophy on his mantle right now.
In 2006, with Naslund and Bertuzzi on their way out and the Sedins not quite on the map as superstars, Vancouver fans needed a hero, and Roberto Luongo was the man.
Fast forward 6 years, and what's changed? Well, a lot. At 33, Luongo is still in his prime as a goaltender, but we've seen enough of what's up his sleeve to be fairly certain he doesn't have any pleasant surprises left for us. There was the captaincy in 2008 — an unnecessary distraction for Luongo and the team. There was the Chicago Blackhawks (twice) and the Boston Bruins. There's also that contract — the main reason he isn't gone already.
But mostly there's Cory Schneider, and the exceptional young goaltender that he has become. Overlong contract aside, there isn't really much wrong with Luongo, as there is so much right with Schneider. He's everything you could ask for: calm and composed in the net, able to speak his mind to the media without coming off as arrogant or childish, and patient and respectful of the NHL pecking order. He bided his time last season, knowing full well that he was good enough to be a starter on another team. And yeah, from the small sample we've seen, he's really fucking good at hockey.
It's hard to find a fault in Schneider's game or his demeanor. But rewind 6 years, and it was Luongo who could do no wrong. Yes, he's let us down a few times since then, but he has also been far and away the franchise's greatest goalie, and brought us within a game of the ultimate prize. Then, after he lost his starting job in the playoffs last year, a guy who was paid 10 million dollars only two seasons ago, a guy with an Olympic gold medal, Stanley Cup Final appearance and Vezina Trophy nomination to his name, simply said "It's okay, I'm fine with this. I totally understand the situation. Cory's the guy now."
How many once-franchise players would be so gracious in passing the torch? And more importantly, how are we going to react when Cory Schneider lets us down for the first time?
This isn't making excuses for Luongo, and certainly not suggesting that keeping Schneider over him is the wrong move. It's an attempt to gain perspective. It's a reference point for a few years down the road when we're throwing Schneider under the bus after a sub-par playoff performance. It's also a reminder that despite everyone's best intentions, sometimes things just don't work out the way they're supposed to.
There were a Cup-load of expectations awaiting Roberto Luongo when he arrived here in the summer of 2006, and he appeared to be perfectly suited to handle them. He fell one game short. Those expectations are on Cory Schneider now.
Let's hope he's ready.