VANCOUVER – Goaltender Roberto Luongo swore being the captain of the Vancouver Canucks was never a distraction.
But the more Luongo tried to explain Monday why he decided to give up the ‘C,’ the more it sounded like the captaincy is a responsibility he’s better off without.
“I want to put my whole focus on goaltending,” Luongo said at a news conference. “I wouldn’t say it was a distraction. I think I could put something less on my plate. The less distractions as a goaltender (the better).”
There’s no doubt the high-profile role of being captain of a Canadian team in a hockey-mad market fed Luongo’s ego. In the end though, the 30-year-old from Montreal has his sights set on winning a Stanley Cup.
“For me, taking a step back, putting my entire focus on that is more important,” Luongo said. “At the end of the day, winning a championship for this team (is more important) than being captain.
“It’s a weird position. You are on your own. You have to be focused all the time and thinking about your job.”
During a game, being captain wasn’t an issue.
“Sometimes when you are away from the rink, getting ready to play games, there was other stuff getting involved,” Luongo said without elaborating.
A relaxed-looking Luongo, wearing a t-shirt, plaid shorts and sandals, made it clear he gave up the captaincy. It wasn’t taken from him.
“It was my decision the whole time,” said Luongo. “I never felt pressure to either give it up or keep it.”
It was Mike Gillis, the team president and general manager, who named Luongo captain prior to the start of the 2008-09 season.
Even Gillis, who often likes doing things differently from other general managers, hinted he may have made a mistake.
“It may be incompatible with goaltending and the expectations that are placed on a captain in terms of availability and being the spokesman of the team,” Gillis said in Penticton, B.C., at a prospects tournament. “It may have been a little too much based on how he likes to prepare and what he likes to do to get ready for the game.
“He tried to meet those expectations as best he could and at the end of the day he felt it wasn’t the best thing for his him, his play and for us.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault said when he was coach of the Montreal Canadiens over a decade ago, the players voted for their captain. But he and Gillis alone decided on Luongo as captain two years ago.
“He feels he’ll be able to focus more on doing his job and that’s stopping pucks,” Vigneault said at the prospects tournament. “If he does that and he plays real well, then it’s going to be real good for our team and I think that’s what he was thinking throughout the summer.”
The Canucks will name a new captain before the start of the regular season.
Centre Henrik Sedin, who won the NHL scoring title last season and was named league MVP, is a possible replacement.
“If they ask it’s an honour for sure,” the soft-spoken Swede said after working out at Rogers Arena. “I think everyone feels that.
“We will see what they decide…”
The Canucks broke tradition when they named Luongo the first goaltender in 60 years. Hockey purists criticized the decision from the start.
Don Cherry of Hockey Night in Canada called the move silly. Mike Milbury, who works for CBC and NBC, said it was “a little absurd.”
The captain becomes the face and voice of a hockey team. He deals with the media prior to a game, and win or lose after.
With Luongo as captain, Vancouver won its division the last two seasons and advanced to the second round of the playoffs each year.
Even leading Canada to a gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics didn’t quiet Luongo’s critics. He’s loved by many fans but considered overrated by others.
Luongo can make 30 saves in a game but some people leave the arena talking about the soft one that went in. When Luongo struggled in the playoffs, questions were asked if he was feeling the extra burden of being captain.
In a market like Vancouver, Luongo’s words were scrutinized regularly. If he made a comment about the team’s defence, some people believed he was criticizing the players’ performance.
“That was a tough part of doing that,” said Luongo. “I’m always the first to admit when I feel I can be better.
“When you are captain you are asked where the team can do better. What do you say? You don’t want to look like you are throwing your teammates under the bus. Sometimes it came off the wrong way.”
During this year’s playoffs, when the Canucks trailed Chicago 3-1, Luongo said he would no longer do interviews prior to a game. It’s common for goaltenders not to talk on game day but captains are usually expected to speak.
Sedin praised the way Luongo handled his duties on and off the ice.
“He should be proud of himself,” he said. “He did a good job for us.
“If this is going to help him be a better goalie, I think we like that as a team.”
Debate over the captaincy has fuelled sports radio phone-in programs all summer. Sedin said it hasn’t been an issue among the players.
“For us it’s not a big deal,” he said. “There is a lot of talk about who should be captain. On a team like this, it doesn’t matter.
“You could give the ‘C’ to anyone. We will see what happens. Whoever they choose, it will be fine.”
Gillis said “no one is a shoo-in” for the captain’s job.
Besides Henrik Sedin, other candidates could be his twin brother Daniel, or rugged forward Ryan Kesler.
Over the summer the Canucks also added veterans like defenceman Dan Hamhuis and centre Manny Malholtra.
“We’ve had a lot of changes over the last couple of years,” Gillis said. “There are a lot of new players coming into this team that are accomplished players. I think it’s an opportunity for us to sit back and see who really wants this and who wants to step forward and have it.
“There are a lot of candidates, a lot of possibilities. We’re going to take our time and observe them and see how it turns out.”
Gillis rejected the idea of rotating captains.
The last goalie to be a captain of an NHL team before Luongo was Bill Durnan of the Montreal Canadiens in the 1947-48 season.
The NHL passed a rule preventing goalies from being a captain prior to the 1948-49 season. One of the concerns was Durnan left his crease so often to speak with officials it gave his team unscheduled timeouts during a game.
Since he was unable to wear the ‘C’ on his jersey, Luongo painted one on the chin of his mask. The Canucks designated three alternate captains—instead of the usual setup of two alternates and a captain—to take ceremonial faceoffs before games and talk to officials.
“I enjoyed the experience, it was fun,” Luongo said. “That was one of the reasons why it was tough for me to come to this decision.”—
With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Donna Spencer in Penticton, B.C.