Luongo steps out Brodeur’s shadow with Olympic gold
Roberto Luongo waited his entire career for a chance to step out of the Martin Brodeur’s shadow, between the pipes and into a championship-game spotlight.
He finally got that opportunity on the Olympic stage, playing in his hometown NHL arena with local fans loudly screaming “Luuu” every time he touched the puck and an entire country holding its breath with every save he made.
Luongo took over Canada’s crease after Brodeur struggled in a 5-3 loss to the U.S. in the final preliminary game. And with national pride on the line, he won four-straight elimination games, putting the exclamation point on a gold medal with 34 saves in a memorable 3-2 overtime victory over the U.S. on Sunday.
“You work your whole life for a moment like this and it’s great to get rewarded,” Luongo told inGoal after speaking to the rest of the media, his voice cracking as he fought back tears. “There are so many thoughts going through my head, thinking about so many people that helped me out along the way.”
None of those thoughts were of the many that questioned his ability to win a big game. The answer was hanging from his neck Sunday.
“I’ll leave it up to you guys to be the judge of that,” Luongo said when asked what the win meant for his legacy. “But I got a gold medal around my neck and nobody can take that away from me.”
Some were already trying to tarnish it a little.
American forward Ryan Kesler, a teammate with the Vancouver Canucks in the NHL, said during the game Luongo was fighting the puck, and predicted a tying goal. That Luongo had little chance when that goal came with 24.4 seconds left to play didn’t seem to matter.
Many wondered why he couldn’t squeeze a shot a short while earlier, with the puck bouncing out of his glove and starting a scramble that eventually led to Zach Parise jamming in a deflection rebound. (Maybe it was that new glove mandated by the IIHF, a rule that saved Canada a game earlier).
“I’m wearing gold. I really don’t care what they think,” Luongo told a large media scrum, bristling at the question. “Are you kidding me?”
Despite the medal, Luongo was compared unfavorably to Olympic MVP Ryan Miller, who was again brilliant for the U.S. But tough comparisons are nothing new.
He was raised in the same Montreal neighborhood as Brodeur, and their parents still bump into each other at the deli. Brodeur, who leads the NHL in career wins and shutouts, had a local arena named for him in 2000. Luongo’s name went on another nearby rink last summer.
While Brodeur racked up victories, shutouts and Stanley Cups in New Jersey, Luongo was stuck on bad teams in New York and Florida.
Luongo emerged as a Vezina Trophy finalist in 2004, but lost the award for the NHL’s top goalie to Brodeur and was dogged by questions about why he couldn’t get Florida into the playoffs.
Luongo finally answered the postseason questions after being traded to Vancouver, leading the Canucks to the playoffs and matching an NHL record with 47 wins in 2006-07. But Brodeur won 48 games to set a new record in New Jersey and beat him out for another Vezina.
Even Luongo’s World Championship success — gold in 2003 and 2004 — came because Brodeur was still in the playoffs with New Jersey. And Brodeur got Canada’s starting job during the NHL lockout in 2005.
After Brodeur got hurt at the 2004 World Cup, Luongo stepped in and beat the Czech Republic in the semifinals. But Brodeur healed in time to take back the net for the title game. Luongo was back on the bench behind him for all but two games at the 2006 Games in Turin, and riding pine again in Vancouver for all but the first game, a token start for local fans in a 8-0 romp over Norway.
After Brodeur stumbled here, though, Babcock made it clear Canada was Luongo’s to lead, putting the weight of a nation’s expectations on the broad shoulders of the 6-foot-3 stopper. But even after wins over Germany, Russia and Slovakia, including a sprawling game-saving stop on Pavol Demitra with eight seconds left, Luongo faced questions.
Memories of his last playoff meltdown were as close as the American bench after U.S forward Patrick Kane reminded the media he’d scored three of seven on Luongo during an elimination game last season.
Kane said Luongo was a “goalie he wouldn’t mind facing,” and seemed to back it up by setting up both goals Sunday. But he never got another chance before Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal, allowing Luongo to enjoy one more special moment with the home crowd.
After accepting his medal, Luongo stepped forward and acknowledged the fans, holding up his finger to match the No. 1 on his jersey as they again screamed “Luuuuu!”
It was music to the ears of Kane’s Chicago Blackhawks’ teammate Jonathan Toews.
“I told him I was kind of sick and tired of the chants when Chicago would come here to Vancouver,” the Canadian forward said. “But it never sounded better than tonight. He was amazing for us.”
“I just wanted to give back a little,” added Luongo of the celebration. “This medal is not only for myself, but for Canada and the people of Vancouver and the fans who have supported me since the first day I got here.”
Especially the ones that did so without question.
Kevin Woodley is a rec-league target and former contributing editor of the Goalie News magazine. He has written about the Vancouver Canucks and NHL for The Associated Press, USA Today, Sports Illustrated and The Hockey News for the last decade, and is currently at the Olympics for AP.