MONTREAL – The small arena where Vancouver netminder Roberto Luongo first strapped on his goalie pads now bears his name.
The Canucks’ team captain was on hand Saturday in the east-end Montreal borough of St-Leonard for the inauguration ceremony and to sign autographs for hundreds of fans who lined up to meet the goaltender.
It was a far cry from a fateful Sunday in the early 1990s when an 11-year-old forward first skated into the net.
Lina Luongo never wanted her son there. She thought her young Roberto, a poor skater, should sharpen his skills on the ice.
“It made me sad because he loved hockey and couldn’t skate,” she recalled.
But that day the team goalie never showed and Luongo begged his mother to be allowed in nets.
“I thought: ‘What’s one day going to do?”‘ she said.
“That day he had a shutout. In the end you can’t stop destiny. It was just meant to happen and it did.”
Luongo fondly remembers his early years at the rink – as a forward.
“Believe it or not I scored a lot of goals in this arena,” he said.
“Now my job is to stop them.”
Luongo’s not the only NHL goalie who spent his formative years in the predominantly Italian neighbourhood.
New Jersey Devils’ netminder Martin Brodeur lived a few blocks from the Luongo household and also made his way through St-Leonard’s minor leagues.
In fact, a stone’s throw from the newly-christened Roberto-Luongo Arena stands the community’s second rink: the Martin-Brodeur Arena, renamed in his honour in 2000.
It’s a demonstration of the fierce pride the area holds for the two elite netminders who grew up close to each other and maintain ties to their old neighbourhood.
“We can say to everybody that we have the two best goalies in the league,” said goalie instructor Angelo Lazzara, who’s worked with Luongo.
“It means a lot to our community. Italians are known for their soccer and not much for hockey.”
Tony Canuto, who coached Luongo in 1991 and 1992, says the two arenas set an example for local athletes.
“It’s a way of telling them someone from St-Leonard can make it,” he said.
The Devils’ star, 37, has Olympic gold for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City and led his team to three Stanley Cup championships in his 15-year tenure, but Luongo, seven years his junior, says he’s never felt like he lived in his shadow.
“Marty’s accomplished a lot in his career and won some Stanley Cups, so I got a little ways to go,” he said.
Luongo rose through Quebec’s minor leagues before a first round draft to the New York Islanders in 1997, later playing for the Florida Panthers for six seasons before being traded to the Canucks in 2006.
Both Luongo and Brodeur are front-runners for the top goalie job on Canada’s Olympic team.
The similarities don’t end with where they’re from.
The pair both played as forwards before switching to goalie, and both made their NHL debuts against the Boston Bruins, Brodeur in 1991 and Luongo in 1999.
“Martin Brodeur has achieved so many things for such a long time,” said Lina Luongo.
“My son can’t even compare to his achievements yet.”