VANCOUVER – The goaltender who thought he had played his last game with the Vancouver Canucks was back skating with his old teammates Friday.
Roberto Luongo, who spent all of last season expecting to be traded, admitted that it was strange to be back in Vancouver wearing a Canucks sweater again.
“It was a bit odd flying in,” Luongo said after training with several Canucks at the University of British Columbia. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, there’s always something else. I don’t know what the future holds but right now I’m just focused on the season.”
Luongo dodged the question of whether he’s happy to remain a member of the Canucks.
“I’ve said all along I want to play,” he said. “Now I have that opportunity.
“I want to take advantage of that and I want to win some games. I want to go as far as we can and hopefully win the Stanley Cup. It’s a big year for me. I’ve been sitting on the bench for a while and I want to show everybody what I can do. We all know it’s an Olympic year. I just want to make the best of it.”
The Canucks’ goaltending situation has been one of Vancouver’s most watched soap operas the last few seasons, with Luongo playing a starring role.
The veteran said his goodbyes last spring after the Canucks were eliminated from the first round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks. The 34-year-old had been looking for a trade ever since Cory Schneider replaced him as Vancouver’s starter. The general consensus was the Canucks would deal the three-time Vezina Trophy finalist over the summer.
In a move that stunned many—including Luongo—the Canucks instead dealt the 27-year-old Schneider to the New Jersey Devils at June’s NHL draft for the ninth overall pick, which Vancouver used to take Bo Horvat.
“It caught me by surprise,” said Luongo. “It takes a while. It’s a process.”
Vancouver’s training camp officially opens Wednesday and Luongo said getting back on the ice to play hockey offers him some solace.
“That’s where you are the most comfortable, when you’re on the ice,” he said. “You’re playing the game and you’re not thinking about stuff.
“That’s why I’m anxious to get training camp started … to get back to a regular routine and not worry about other stuff.”
Luongo’s contract was a stumbling block in trying to trade him. He has nine years and US$40.5 million left on a deal that counts as a US$5.3 million salary cap hit.
In a market once called a “goaltender graveyard,” Luongo has always been a lightening rod for criticism. He isn’t even sure how local fans will react to his return.
“To be honest with you I don’t know how it’s going to work out,” said Luongo, who posed for pictures with several people after the workout.
“There’s always going to be people supporting and there’s going to be people not so supportive. It goes along with the territory. I’ve realized that over the course of the year you can’t really please everybody.”
In his early days in Vancouver, Luongo could sometimes be cocky, even arrogant. Some days he was friendly, others aloof.
He showed more maturity the last few seasons and was praised for the way he handled the situation with Schneider. The two goaltenders were supportive of each other and didn’t want to be a distraction to the team.
“I’ve always been the same person,” said Luongo. “I just think a lot of people didn’t see that before.
“You learn and gain experience and learn to handle certain situations, whether they are a bit more complicated or whether you are thriving. You have to handle things a certain way. Maybe I have learned that a little bit more over the last couple of years. You have to practise it.”
Luongo was silent in the immediate aftermath of the trade, leading to speculation he was angry. There were suggestions he might boycott the Canucks’ training camp.
“No,” he said, dismissing the notion. “That’s not my style.”
Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis went to Luongo’s home in Florida over the summer to speak with his goaltender.
“We chatted,” Luongo said. “There was no animosity.
“I don’t know if it was as rosy as he painted it but we had a couple of laughs. They were just trying to do their job (trading Schneider). I don’t hold that against them.”
In another major move, the Canucks fired coach the easy going Alain Vigneault and replaced him with the fiery John Tortorella.
“He’s going to bring a change to the dressing room,” Luongo said. “Not that Alain was a bad coach but sometimes change is good.
“We will see what he brings. Hopefully it will spark the boys a little bit.”
Last year as Schneider’s backup, Luongo appeared in 20 games, including 18 starts. He had a 9-6-3 record, with two shutouts, a 2.56 goals-against average and a .907 save percentage.
Luongo’s relationship with the Canucks may have been strained, but he sounded like a man ready to try and make things work on Friday. A strong start to the season will also help him gain a spot on the Canadian team defending its Olympic gold medal.
“I’ve been focused, getting ready for the last month or so,” he said. “I try to eliminate every distraction, just worrying about playing the game.
“At this point in time that’s all I really want to be focused on … making sure that I get back to where I was two years ago, establish myself as one of the best in the league. I don’t want to squander an opportunity like that. I have a great chance to play and I want to take advantage of it.”
Note: The Canucks also announced Friday that Pavel Bure’s No. 10 will be retired at Rogers Arena prior to Vancouver’s Nov. 2 game against the Toronto Maple Leafs. In 428 games with Vancouver, Bure collected 478 points, including 254 goals. He still holds the team record for most points scored by a rookie, with 34 goals and 26 appoints in 65 games.