How Roberto Luongo Saved Vancouver

In time, any serious hockey market will destroy its $64 million goaltender.

Vancouver stands out for having turned the practice into high art. When Brian Burke was still general manager, he called the place a goalie graveyard. Flippant ideas become gospel around the NHL faster than other big-time sports, and "goalie graveyard" hit all kinds of levels. Over time, it has come to mean an indictment of coaching and management, though Burke was clearly implicating neither when he came up with the idea. Nor do I imagine he was alluding to the skaters in front of any of those 18 goalies that spanned the years between Kirk McLean and Roberto Luongo. Which leaves Burke's favorite scapegoat: fans and media. (Even back then it was getting tricky to differentiate where one group ends and another begins).

I asked the guy who plays goal in my Saturday morning game how he deals with the forces of the graveyard. He sent me almost a thousand words by the end of the afternoon. At the top he wrote: "NOTE: This is part one. The historical perspective of the Vancouver Canuck fan." He was talking about Roberto Luongo, the unloved superstar who earlier this month was traded to Florida after eight years with the team. Every conversation about Luongo is really a conversation about Vancouver.

I found myself living in Vancouver not long after Luongo was named (unofficial) captain—the league's first goalie captain in more than six decades—and since then I've been trying to decide whether they are especially obnoxious for fans, or whether that reputation is just another circular hockey "fact." It's fair to say to say that a fanbase gets a little "X" on its permanent record any time it starts the sort of riot that makes CNN. And while the Canucks have two of the best ever, there's nothing here that remotely resembles an overarching culture of hooliganism.

How Roberto Luongo Saved Vancouver

So who exactly becomes a Canucks fan? Pretend, for a minute, that you're the sort of person who moves to a place because The Economist says it's the world's most livable city. You never really followed hockey, but start cheering for the Canucks because they've been carefully bundled up with that most-livable-city brand, which includes your God-given right to do kundalini yoga on Third Beach at dawn and snowboard on top of an actual mountain 30 minutes later. (In reality, everyone's too busy huffing the world's best weed to partake in any of that, but it makes a nice Facebook profile pic for whomever you abandoned back in Flin Flon, Hogtown, smoggy Beijing.)

The Canucks became emblematic of a place that is as close to paradise as a city in North America gets. They were running away with seasons in a way that wasn't supposed to happen in the age of parity. They had Swedish twins who communicate like dolphins on and off the ice. One week, you'd run into them eating sushi in Yaletown. The next week, naked photos of Ryan Kesler would be ripping the space-time continuum of Vancouver social media apart. Plus they had a goalie for their captain. He wore a mask with a C and a lumberjack. The big sasquatch-brown eyes, peering through a slit in that battered mask, were plastered up over the entrance to downtown, thirty feet high, like the Colossus of Rhodes in leg pads.

How Roberto Luongo Saved Vancouver

If you were only just discovering hockey, it became easy to zero in on Luongo—he was what every dollar of Canucks marketing told you to focus on. And as you started to watch games closely, you discovered that a goalie is indeed some kind of mythical creature, too isolated and idiosyncratic for this world. Luongo, successful but unappreciated, became the symbol not just for the team, but for the years that bookended the Olympics when everyone in the world was telling you there was no better place to live.

This is a roundabout way of saying the Canucks organization made the choice to cultivate a market, rather than a fanbase, one that was always more excited about discovering the next new thing than anything they can ever actually have. Most of them have already flipped their 518 square feet of glass in Coal Harbour and moved onto some emerging tech paradise in the Baltic.

Which is itself a roundabout way of wondering how an opposing fan in Northern Alberta or on the fringe of one of the NHL's demolition-derby markets wouldn't despise the utter entitlement of people who inhabit such a place. And because he was the unwitting symbol of that Vancouver smugness, Luongo became the target. He came across as so uniquely fallible, and Canucks fans—so seldom the target of negative energy—seemed to absorb the abuse existentially.

The great misconception is that Vancouver destroyed Roberto Luongo. The greater one, though, is that Luongo was somehow destroyed at all. Any high art done in Vancouver these past eight years was perpetrated by that merry prankster, Bobby Lu himself.


"If it was a goaltending graveyard, it was because dying goaltenders were sent there," my goalie wrote in one of his subsequent emails. He cited Sean Burke and Felix Potvin. He went through all the graves. And then he did something that is heretical to the more established wing of Vancouver's fanbase: He turned on Kirk McLean.

"McLean is touted as a hero, but his record and numbers were pretty mediocre in Vancouver. He hit a streak in the playoffs in 1994. But the team lost. Career GAA 3.26, Save % .887. And yet, there he is in the ring of honour."

Believe this, because the old Canucks diehards won't: Luongo was the franchise's first elite goalie.

Things don't end well for goalies anywhere in the world. Patrick Roy was run out of Montreal. Martin Brodeur, the winningest goaltender in the history of the sport, has worn out his welcome in the only market he's ever played. Goalies represent eras more than any other player, and there are no dynasties left in hockey. How else can the story end?

I can only speak as a lifelong Flames fan to what it's like the first time you get goaltending—real goaltending—on your side. You actually sleep better at night. To fall for Miikka Kiprusoff was to fall for the aloofness of an elite netminder. His indestructibility. Watching Luongo was the complete opposite. He seemed obviously beatable even as he won.

But a funny thing happens as you watch Luongo, night after night, over a few years. You begin to see the game entirely through those expressive eyes. While there's no shortage of floundering professional athletes, to watch the exposed nerves of arguably the best at a position made something impossible seem entirely relatable. If you were Canadian you had no choice but to put all your hope in Luongo for that gold medal game in 2010. The experience fucked up everybody in Canada for months leading up to the game. And the 67 minutes he went against a transcendent Ryan Miller was the most agonizing thing in hockey my generation has ever been exposed to.

The story quickly became that Canada won not because of Luongo but in spite of him. But some of us began to see Luongo in a new light. Did he look solid? He didn't. Did he get it done? Roy, who delivered one of the greatest performances in the history of goaltending against Hasek in Nagano, never won a gold for Canada.

Bobby Lu struck a nerve for the self-deprecating shinny hockey players who don't believe hockey needs to be some sacred experience. As the expectations ratcheted up for the Canucks, Luongo pulled off one of the great pivots in modern sport. He publicly embraced his fallibility. It was a little too real for hockey fans. The sad comedy in this drama is that the city—the country—didn't fall for Lu until it was too late.


Luongo is seen as a fragile creature that belongs and keeps ending up in some lush, pink place in South Florida. (The trade that brought him from Sunrise to Vancouver was really made to spare the city from having to cheer for Todd Bertuzzi, who had by then become league's most despised villain.) What the emerging Canucks market didn't quite grasp was that Luongo is a product of the Quebec goaltending factory. The heir to Roy and Brodeur. A student of the great François Allaire. He's the last great goalie in that line. Coming into the league—the highest goalie ever drafted up to that point—there was perhaps nobody in the position more credentialed, or saddled with higher expectations. (Don Cherry, who ripped him upon his trade, suggested that Luongo, coming out of juniors in 1997, would be the next Ken Dryden.) There's a reason teams don't risk high draft picks on goaltenders. Imagine the mechanisms one must develop in order to deal with such expectations.

I asked a friend who had spent some time in rural Quebec what a place like Val-d'Or could have done to Luongo. "It couldn't be more different for a big-family mama's boy from Montreal," my friend said. "Gritty, northern, distant mining town."

I'm convinced that a central part of the Luongo psyche was forged during a single game or series of games against the nearest rivals the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies. Rivalries between mining towns and companies run effing deep, like the Hatfields and McCoys. I have no evidence, but I see a moment where Luongo stole a 2-1 road victory on a Friday night in Rouyn where he and les Foreurs barely made it out alive. Some steeling event that made him what he is, whatever that may be. Maybe it toughens him for success, the world juniors, the NHL. Or maybe the experience has left a deep weakness, pushing him into the arms of his wife's Italian family in south Florida.

Pure armchair psychoanalysis? My friend, who moved from Ottawa to Vancouver in the months leading up to the finals run, had become more obsessed with Luongo than anyone I'd met, which only seemed to make him despise the Canucks more. As we drank before Game 7, both quietly praying for the Canucks to fall apart in a way that would also bring Luongo some redemption, he told me that he was writing the ballad of Bobby Lu. When I asked him about the scenes in his ballad, he mentioned a riff on the way Luongo always played on the literal edge of the game—Long Island peninsula, coastal Florida, along the tidewaters of False Creek.

How Roberto Luongo Saved Vancouver

Luongo played goal for the Canucks like I imagine he plays online poker. Well enough to keep the hand interesting, without scaring the weaker players off. It's what made him such a good story in the playoffs. A guy with an instinct for where all the chips on the table were located, rather than just those in a given pot. If his team wasn't going to score any goals, he'd fold. At the end of the day, what is the difference between losing 1-0 and 7-0? Other than that seven motivates the team in front of you for the next game. And giving the opponent seven was setting them up for the next hand.

I don't want you to take this too literally, but I do think it's worth appreciating how hard it is to read a goalie's cards. The very nature of the position lends itself to guardedness, even from the boss. Alain Vigneault, over a time, developed a knack, but just got ground down by it until he snapped and started playing Schneider. John Tortorella, on the other hand, is that guy who has a little success playing with his bible study buddies back home, steps into a Vegas card room, and blows his entire mortgage on the first hand. Goalie graveyard? Tortorella, who won a Stanley Cup 10 years ago, will never coach again in the NHL once this is over.


How Roberto Luongo Saved Vancouver

I really don't know how else to explain the escalating game of Stockholm syndrome that played out in Vancouver these last eight years—who was even the captor and who was the hostage. Which party forced the other's hand. But I keep falling back on comedy to explain it. Bemused outsiders have likened Luongo to Rodney Dangerfield. But the truth is, in Vancouver, Luongo became more like an Andy Kaufman character.

Just like there were several versions of Kaufman, there are multiple "Lu"s. The multitudes-containing captain (Bobby Lu). Online poker star (STROMBONE1). Brick wall (Luuuuu). Italian mama's boy, who can evoke "Foreign Man" and his "sad, sweaty failure." An Olympic champion who can turn from bravado to breakdown, literally with a Kaufmanesque blink of his big brown eyes.

There was the way he could skate out to the top of his crease and project something beyond his physical dimensions—here I come to save the day—and then shrink into something tiny at the back of his net.

In the manner of Kaufman reading Gatsby to an audience, Luongo once showed up for a TV interview dressed like a poetry professor. He recited uncomfortably sincere verses about his difficulty in shootouts; about the backups who wanted his job; about Dustin Byfuglien, who had shattered his confidence in the previous playoffs. If you've seen any Frightenstein, you'll hear an edge of Vincent Price in the delivery.

Human eclipse, rhinoceros hips.

Who will laugh last when I slash your calf?

Bring me peace. Make it cease.

Get your big ass out of my crease.

And maybe it's not Dryden's The Game, but this is insight into the frustrations of a modern goaltender. There was more in any one of these short confessionals than in everything Sidney Crosby has ever told a reporter.

Also note that Luongo's best material always comes at his own expense. Name a first ballot Hall of Famer—any sport you want—who has so publicly embraced his fallibility. The first hint that Luongo wasn't your run-of-the-mill Vezina contender came in his first playoff run with Vancouver, a double-overtime elimination game against the Ducks. His backup Dany Sabourin suddenly appeared in the crease—five agonizing minutes of sudden death while Luongo was in the bathroom. Six years later he returned to the scene of the crime:

It's his addition of the hashtag "squirts" that elevates it. Not even the professional Kaufman disciples can pull off Luongo's high-level, real-stakes emasculation act on Twitter. You could see it from his very first Tweet, even though, in the clearest Kaufman parallel, no one knew if @strombone1 was even the real Luongo. (For a while, there was speculation that it was James Duthie.)

It was clearly Luongo. In reference to goalie fights: "Just an FYI. If Ray Emery ever decides to skate down the ice and try to fight me I'm getting the fuck out of dodge!!!" When the league's official @NHL account asked Canucks fans if they were ready to see Cory Schneider as the team's No. 1 goalie, Luongo retweeted it, adding "Can't wait!!!" (Say what you want about Luongo falling apart, but during Schneider's first real crack at the starting job, he cramped up and had to be pulled out of a playoff game against the Blackhawks. In three games between them this season, Luongo has beaten Schneider each time). On the tense eve before the Olympic semi-final in Sochi, he tweeted a photo of himself and Ryan Kesler in Christmas sweaters and the words, "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer! Goodnight! Huge game tomorrow." He added the hashtag #ThePriceisright, because, of course, Carey Price was starting over Luongo.

Sometimes he'd just reference Kesler's penis.

A lot is made about the media in Vancouver, but truth is the hockey writing here is as strong, if not stronger, than any other Canadian market. The best is David Ebner, who interviewed Luongo before this year's Olympics. Inevitably, they spoke about Twitter.

"I like it because it's a public place, but you're still guarded by a computer screen or a phone…You can't get mobbed by people. Sometimes, that gets a little overwhelming for me, so it's a fun way for me to interact with people and let them see my personality without really having to put myself in a situation where it gets uncomfortable."

"I think his words about 'mobbed' and 'overwhelming' speak directly to his very emotional character," Ebner wrote me in an email.

How did we learn Luongo had been traded? Our social media streams suddenly lit up with a thousand little retweeted palm trees. It took a minute to understand what that meant. (I didn't even know you could tweet a palm tree.) But this is the last image most of us will remember from these eight years. No words were needed. It said everything was going to be all right. Even if Tim Thomas was in Florida waiting for him. And nobody on Earth had exposed Luongo's fragility like Thomas. Thomas was Luongo's Jerry Lawler. Yet Luongo would use Twitter to express excitement for this demented twist. An hour later, of course, Thomas had been traded. And hockey lost its best crack at a glorious couple since Pokey and the Bandit.

When @TSNBobMcKenzie broke news of the Thomas trade, @strombone1 replied, "NOOOO!!!!!!!!"

And I do believe he meant it.

Appointing Luongo captain didn't precisely work out in the end, but it's hard to deny that this didn't become Luongo's Canucks. They were a post-modern hockey team that won't properly be understood with anything less than a decade of hindsight.

There was the time when Bieksa gave an entire interview in the pitch-perfect character of Kesler to a reporter who couldn't tell them apart. There was the night Francesco Aquilini's little brother opened up Rogers Arena to a traveling evangelical Christian, who held Daniel Sedin's helmet up in front of more than 10,000 followers of the Passion Movement, and began an elaborate prayer. Henrik was later asked in a dressing room scrum whether his brother believed in God. "I don't think so," he deadpanned. (Henrik is the only Canuck who could have followed Luongo as captain.)

Luongo, who is fluent in three languages, found a voice on Twitter that the dressing room media scrum wasn't ready for. You'd hear him try to explain how a loss wasn't entirely his fault, that hockey's a team game. But a goalie is supposed to sharpen the butt end of his stick and fall on it for the team. In sports, you can always end any interview by slipping into the clichés. "I let my team down" is all Luongo ever had to say to make the drama go away. It's a capitulation that really expresses greater disdain. Like when the terrorists kidnap the gutsy Marine who has to read the statement denouncing his values—that's the tone you need to strike for an interview after a big loss. This qualifies as accountability in the hockey conversation. This is why Luongo's voice always sounded so awkward. His mistake was going against the league's prevailing bullshit.


People who have only seen glimpses of Vancouver on TV between periods don't realize that you can buy heroin three blocks from the Canucks dressing room, shoot up on the sidewalk, and nobody will look twice. The neighborhood adjacent to twinkling Rogers Arena is known as the poorest urban postal code in Canada. This was the hunting ground of the country's worst serial killer. It's the place you end up after you've exhausted every other place. There is really no west left of here. Only islands.

This is also where people come who want to change the world. Vancouver's the place where Adbusters and Greenpeace got their start. Professional sports are not seen as some sort of panacea here. (Remember what this city did to the Grizzlies.) And so there is an intense undertow that makes for a self-conscious fanbase. The riots, which added an element of profound consequence to Luongo's Stanley Cup disappointment, began a hemorrhaging of regional psyche:

This "real" Vancouver depends upon fantasy: the fantasy that cheering for a professional sports team is some kind of noble cause rather than, as my colleague Alec Dawson sadly notes, complicity in "an endeavor devoted to turning public goods into private wealth." But above all the notion of a "real" Vancouver builds on the fantasy that violent exclusion will somehow make this a "world-class" city.

"World-class" cities prove their status mostly by not worrying about whether or not they are perceived to be world class. And for good or ill, it would be hard to name a major world city (Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico City) that does not have its history of riots and social disturbances. Real cities, unlike this fantasy of a "real" Vancouver, have social tensions, divisions, disagreements, off-days and on-days, that sometimes erupt in violence, sometimes not. It's the dream of purity, of niceness untroubled by difficulty and difference that reveals continued provincialism. We saw this already with the Olympics, and the effort to present an image of the city that erased its homelessness and drug problems in favor of the literally incredible myth of "Super Natural British Columbia."

In such a context, it's hard to give a shit about what happens in an NHL dressing room, and you couldn't help but ultimately resent how it would inevitably get dragged onto the front pages of the newspapers. But the fact that @strombone1 had an instinct, beyond self-preservation, to trivialize that drama, to shift it to a little stream of Twitter, was immensely redeeming—for everybody in the city.

The Luongo Canucks died not against Tim Thomas, but when it became clear that there was more at stake than a game. Luongo had the foresight to get himself off the runaway train, and onto one in South Florida speeding the other way. And while no team that's traded Luongo has ever won the trade, it's hard—if you're a fan of characters—not to like what came back the other way. Jacob Markström is not a bag of pucks. He's also no slouch on Twitter, and here he is playing with dolls:

Then there's Eddie Lack, a homegrown prospect. Four days after Luongo was traded, I watched the Canucks welcome the Flames to town. (I picked up a ticket on Craigslist, with a face value of $118.50, for 20 bucks—which itself felt historically significant.) The team in front of Lack, supposedly fighting for their playoff lives, played as an uninspired a game as a team can play. Yet they won. Lack was first star. He flat out stole the game.

Early on, he'd let in a bad one from center ice. I'd braced myself for the petulant whistles. The groans. The sarcastic cheer that would erupt the next time he would make an easy save. But someone behind me yelled, "That's OK, Eddie!" Another: "You can do it, Lack!"

Then someone yelled "Let's go, Eddie," and suddenly a bunch of people were yelling it.

Luongo's final Tweet on his way out of town read: "And take good care of my boy Eddie Lack for me. He's a great talent and an even better person."

A year ago, the Canucks had two of the 10 best goalies in the league. Now they are entering the unknown with two kooky Swedes, who have barely a handful of NHL wins between them. The goalie graveyard has itself been buried. The Canucks fanbase itself is relatively young, with its own blank slate, a chance to establish a more likable balance between optimism and cynicism. Let's call it realism. There is a sense that the pressure is off, that this might finally be fun, that the fun doesn't necessarily have to be tied to regular season results. Roberto Luongo spent eight years preparing Vancouver for this.


Chris Koentges (@cskoentges) wrote about the rise of Finnish goaltending in this month's Atlantic. More at VeryEthnic.