Setting a gold standard
In a one-on-one interview, Roberto Luongo offers a glimpse into the man behind the Canucks mask.
The mask that Vancouver Canucks’ goaltender, Roberto Luongo, has chosen to wear this season is simple. Unlike some of the multicoloured, busy designs that other NHL goalies favour, his vintage-inspired mask simply features the Canucks’ stick logo on the crown and his number—1—on the throat protector.
Luongo has worn number 1 his entire NHL career. At 30, he’s been playing professionally since 1999 when he was called up by the New York Islanders. His professional journey has taken him from his hometown of Saint-Leonard, a suburb of Montreal, to Uniondale, New York to Sunrise, Florida to Vancouver.
The missing link
Luongo arrived in Vancouver to begin the 2006-07 NHL season. He quickly became a fan favourite, enthusiastically embraced as the missing link to the team’s postseason success.
Luongo and his wife, Gina, had just built a home in Florida, and within a month of moving in, he was traded by the Panthers. “Wouldn’t you know it?” Luongo says, pragmatically. They return to Florida in the offseason and will probably settle back there once his hockey career is over.
But after living four years in Yaletown, an upscale downtown Vancouver neighbourhood, Luongo has developed an affinity for his new home. “The city’s beautiful,” he says, “the metropolitan life, the mountains, the weather. It rains a bit, but that’s okay. You can deal with it.”
The real draw for Luongo, though, is the fact that Vancouver, despite its image as a laidback Lotus Land, is a hockey town. “It’s a great hockey city,” he says, “where fans care about their team. The building is sold out every night, and it’s loud to play in and that gets you going.”
And one of the most familiar sounds heard in GM Place, the Canucks’ arena, is the crowd appreciatively cheering “Lou” every time Luongo makes a spectacular save.
Shooting for the dream
For a boy from Saint-L?ard, a predominantly Italian community in east Montreal, this is the fulfillment of his childhood dream. When he was eight, he began playing soccer and hockey, but by the time he was 12, he didn’t have enough time to play both.
“I had to make a decision. Obviously, hockey was a bigger passion for me,” he says. He played forward position until he was 12 because his parents wanted to ensure he got exercise and learned to skate.
When his team’s goalie quit, he had an opportunity to play in goal. “I really wanted to give it a shot, and finally my parents said they were okay with it,” he says. He posted his first shutout in that game.
Luongo’s boyhood idol was Grant Fuhr, the former Edmonton Oilers’ goaltender. Watching Fuhr on television, Luongo studied the spectacular glove saves he used to make. “Once I got a bit older, I started watching Patrick Roy more because he was in Montreal.”
He credits being raised in a strict family (his father Antonio is Italian, his mother Lina is Irish-Canadian) and playing with kids who were older than himself, for helping him to mature more quickly than a lot of kids his age.
Luongo says his early maturity helped him to develop the mental focus required to become a successful goaltender. He believes that physical and mental skills are equally necessary for goaltending.
“You’ve got to be strong mentally, able to block out the bad goals, the bad games when the crowd gets on you—that’s a big part of goaltending.”
And confidence is also a prerequisite of the job. “I find that when I’m confident in net, things go my way, and sometimes when I’m not as confident, I get the weird bounces.”
An ability to handle pressure is another requirement. But for Luongo, pressure comes with the territory. “You’re always under pressure when you’re playing goal, and it’s what makes that position so great,” he says.
Only one goal
In high school when Luongo was pressured to choose a career direction, the only thing he wanted to be was an NHL player. His passion for hockey was overwhelming—nothing else interested him.
But nowadays there are other passions that bring a smile to his face. He lights up with enthusiasm when he talks about his daughter, Gabriella, who turns one in March. He describes fatherhood as an experience that has changed his life.
“It changes your views on most everything you look at in life, and the great thing about it is no matter what kind of day I have, she’s always there waiting for me when I get home,” he says. “She makes me forget about rough times on the ice. She loves me no matter what.”
As to whether he’ll encourage Daddy’s little girl to play hockey—he’ll leave that decision up to her. “If she loves it and she wants to give it a try, I’d encourage her, but maybe figure skating would be better for her,” he says with a laugh.
Goalkeeping ability runs in the Luongo family, though. His two younger brothers, Leo and Fabio, also played goal. Today Leo is a goaltenders’ coach in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and Fabio is coaching in Junior AAA.
Spending time with family is one of Luongo’s favourite things to do when he’s not playing hockey. Luongo maintains strong family ties with his wife Gina’s family in Florida and his own family in Montreal.
His ties to Montreal extend beyond his family. Last summer he combined two of his favourite activities—golf and charity work—when he hosted the first Open Golf Roberto Luongo. Proceeds from his golf tournament benefited three local charities: Montreal Children’s Hospital, Sainte-Justine Hospital, and a senior centre network in Saint-L?ard.
Like many hockey players, Luongo loves golf but doesn’t find the time to play much anymore. But he does find time to play a little road hockey with his friends Logan, Quinn, and Jaxson, clients of Canuck Place Children’s Hospice in Vancouver.
Canuck Place is a pediatric palliative care facility for children living with a life-threatening illness. Its programs provide support for 350 children, teens, and their families.
Each year Luongo films a television commercial for Canuck Place. The kids have made a big impression on him. “They’re great kids,” he says. “They’re going through some tough times, and to see them smile like that all the time makes me realize how lucky I am.”
Captain without a C
More than luck, Luongo’s work ethic and leadership ability led the Canucks to name him captain prior to the 2008-09 hockey season. The last goalie to be named captain in the NHL was Bill Durnan of the Montreal Canadians in 1947-48. As only the sixth goalie in the history of the NHL to be named captain, Luongo says he was caught off guard.
“It was quite an honour. Unfortunately, I can’t wear the C on my jersey, but just having that title next to my name is very honouring and flattering. I try to do the best I can to lead the team.”
After four years in the locker room, Luongo feels more comfortable voicing his opinion. “I am quite vocal now in the locker room. But in the end, I am a goaltender, and my first job is to stop the puck,” he says. “I try to lead by example, mostly by my work ethic, especially in practice.”
Dreams of glory
Prior to the 2009-10 season, Luongo was rewarded with a 12-year $64 million contract extension, further proof that he is the foundation the Canucks are building their team upon.
And that future hopefully includes winning the Stanley Cup. The last time the Cup was hoisted in Vancouver was when the Vancouver Millionaires won it in 1915. Winning the Cup is the main thing Luongo would like to accomplish in his hockey career.
“That’s what I dreamed as a kid. That’s why we all play,” he says enthusiastically.
Many players also dream of competing in the Olympics with that symbol of Canadian pride, the maple leaf, emblazoned across their chests. Luongo played in his first Winter Olympics as back-up to goalie Martin Brodeur in Turin in 2006. Like Luongo, Brodeur is a native of Saint-L?ard who grew up only blocks away from the Luongo home.
This year the Winter Olympics are being held in Luongo’s own backyard—Vancouver—and his home arena, GM Place, will be home to the hockey events. Luongo will don the Team Canada jersey this month and eagerly offer his formidable skills as the team attempts to capture the gold.
“You don’t get the opportunity every day to play in the Olympics in your hometown where you play professionally so it’s going to be very exciting,” Luongo says. “It’s a great honour to play for Team Canada in the Olympics.”
Luongo predicts GM Place will contain an “electric” atmosphere.
“That gets your adrenaline going more than anything else, and the pressure’s going to be there,” he says. “The whole nation’s watching, and everybody wants gold.”
Luckily, Luongo thrives under pressure. “Pressure is something that comes with the sport, and you either embrace it or you don’t,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, those kinds of situations are exciting for me, and I embrace them.”
Luongo also embraces the pressure of a life lived in the public eye. Despite being constantly recognized on the streets of Vancouver, he takes it in stride.
“Any time you meet somebody on the street, they have great things to say,” he notes. “I try to accommodate them as much as I can. They care about their team and when they see you, it feels like you’re a rock star almost.”
When escaping the public eye, Luongo unwinds by going to movies. He prefers dramas with interesting plot twists, and among his favourite actors are Clive Owen and Brad Pitt.
Luongo’s other favourite pastime is poker. The NHL lockout in 2004-05 left him with plenty of time on his hands to take up Texas hold’em. Luongo goes so far as to speculate that he might want to be a poker player when he retires from hockey.
But at 30 years old with a 12-year contract in his pocket, Luongo appears to be very far from retirement. Last year his health fuelled intensive media speculation as a groin injury sidelined him for eight weeks.
These days he prepares two hours before game time by riding an exercise bike for seven or eight minutes, followed by 10 to 15 minutes of dynamic warmup exercises supervised by the Canucks’ strength and conditioning coach, Roger Takahashi.
He follows the same routine before each game. When questioned about any superstitions he might have, Luongo laughs. “Definitely there are certain things that I do that are superstitions, but we don’t have enough time to talk about them all.”
Luongo is more open when it comes to his diet. During the offseason, he follows a strict diet to prepare for the upcoming hockey season. He eats lean meats such as fish and chicken, brown rice, and veggies, supplemented by a daily multivitamin.
But during the hockey season, he puts more carbs into his body. That’s when, he says, “the Italian comes out in me. I eat more pasta than maybe I should but, all in all, it’s about taking care of my body and making sure I don’t abuse it.”
The care he takes with his health extends to other areas of his life. Despite the toughness he exhibits in net and the ferocity of his game face, Luongo is a man who cares deeply about his family, his teammates, his fans, and his charity work.
Lui’s Crease Club is a box Luongo sponsors in GM Place for children who might not otherwise be able to attend an NHL game. And at the end of each game, he gives his stick to a fan before skating off the ice.
The boy from Saint-Leonard who dreamed of being an NHL goalie is living his dream—and giving back to the community. Thanks, Mr. and Mrs. Luongo, for letting Lui play in net.
International hockey resume
Luongo has represented Canada on:
The woman behind the Mask
Behind every great man, there is supposedly a woman, and behind every great goalie, there’s Marlene Ross. From her studio in a 300-year-old coach house in Brockville, Ontario, Ross has been designing and painting goalie masks for 20 years.
Known as a “starving artist who would paint on anything,” Ross was asked by a local goalie to paint something on his mask. That first mask proved to be so popular, it launched a new career for Ross as a goalie mask designer and painter.
Today the designs on her website (marlenerossdesign.com) read like a who’s who of NHL goalies. Fans love her work too. In a recent TSN poll held to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the debut of goaltender Jacques Plante’s mask, Roberto Luongo’s vintage-look mask was voted the best mask in the NHL by sports fans.
According to Ross, client Luongo “always knows exactly what he wants.” She says he has good, precise ideas. He’s a down-to-earth, thoughtful person who appreciates history as evidenced by his use of Johnny Canuck, an iconic Vancouver Canuck symbol, on his mask.
Ross believes people appreciate the retro look of Luongo’s mask. “People fell in love with the simplistic nature of the design.” Although it may look old, that’s an illusion that Ross has painstakingly created.