Captain Canuck

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 12:42 PM ET

VANCOUVER -- The interviewer stood in the horseshoe formation of media men who daily during the playoffs claim position to watch Roberto Luongo peel off his practice jersey and undershirt replacing the latter with a dry one, remove his pads, equipment and skates and, finally, stand up and step forward to begin the session.

Struggling and stammering somewhat while groping for the right words, the out-of-town interviewer was asking Luongo his view of how he's viewed in Vancouver, how he sees himself being seen as a, well, a ...

"God?" he said.

"No, just kidding," Luongo quickly added.

Phrase it as many ways as you can think of to ask him to talk about how it feels to be Roberto Luongo in Vancouver right now and he just won't go there.

"I honestly don't want to answer that question right now," he said when finally asked about not getting an answer to that question no matter how many ways he's been asked.

Luongo went into the Western Conference semifinal series against the Chicago Blackhawks with a team which has only twice gone beyond the second round in the first 38 years of NHL history here, a goalie on the precipice of being Vancouver's version of Broadway Joe Namath. That's especially so if he can take them where they've never been before.

"Luongo has the chance, the opportunity, to go down as the biggest of any athlete who has ever played here," said Tom Larscheid, the former B.C. Lion going back to 1962 who has been the Canucks radio colour commentator since 1977.

"Joe Kapp was big. Willie Fleming, too," he said of his old B.C. Lions football teammates before NHL hockey hit town.

"Pavel Bure was the most exciting player Vancouver ever had. And Trevor Linden was Mr. Canuck. But Luongo has the chance to go down as the biggest of them all."

The city has been searching for a superstar for a long time, going back to current Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon as their first draft pick back in the beginning. They've had Bure, who almost made it, and brought in Mark Messier and now Mats Sundin to be the guy, but Luongo has put himself in position.

SPECIAL STATUS

Willie Mitchell, the Vancouver Island-born-and-bred player who grew up watching the Canucks, said Luongo is indeed taking on a special status here now, but let's not go so fast on anointing him the ultimate athlete or, indeed, Canuck.

"Come on. There's Trevor. When I go around town with Trevor it's like being with the Queen," he said.

"He's earned that. A legacy happens over time. But Roberto is huge. And he's a goalie. For the Canucks to have a great goalie is huge. Vancouver has been the Achilles heel with the goalies the Canucks have had here other than Richard Brodeur and Kirk McLean," he said of the two netminders who managed to get the team to Stanley Cup finals.

"The city has never had a goalie. This city has wanted a goalie bad. I think that's why the relationship is what it is," added Mitchell.

Brian Burke, when he was GM here, called Vancouver "the goalie graveyard."

Now Vancouver not only has a goalie. He is the goalie who, especially after what happened in the last 80 seconds of Game 7 between the New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes, is expected to replace Martin Brodeur as the national netminder in the nets for the Olympic Winter Games here next February.

Luongo is, indeed, a study.

He's not the first athlete to have this kind of relationship with a city, but you could make a case that, like Luongo himself, few have been this intense. Or this sensitive.

They love him. But deep down, they fear he loves them not. And that when his contract is up at the end of the Vancouver 2010 Olympic year, he's going to be gone.

"They are walking on egg shells that he's going to leave," said Larscheid.

Late in the season, Luongo made an appearance on Hockey Night In Canada where he was asked about his long-term future here. His answer was that he was going to go where he had his best chance to win. Quite a bit was made of that.

He was also the subject of a Sports Illustrated article in which writer Michael Silver quoted wife Gina Luongo as saying her husband was crying when he told her on the phone he'd just been traded from Florida to Vancouver and said she didn't much like the diagonal move on the NHL map either, saying "They might as well have sent us to Alaska."

That was a while back. But quite a bit was made of that, too.

New GM Mike Gillis is on the record as saying what happens in this playoff season could have a lot to do with Luongo's willingness to look at a contract extension July 1. On that date, the twins, Daniel and Henrik Sedin, are scheduled to become free agents. If they don't re-up ...

But this is now and this is the Stanley Cup playoffs and all of that was in the background as Vancouver watched Luongo give up only one goal on 89 shots in his last three games of the regular season to finish third and win home ice advantage for what has turned out to be two series. Then he didn't give up a single goal in all of the third periods of the four game sweep over St. Louis. And he led all playoff goalies with 1.50 goals-against average and a .962 save percentage.

While Luongo gave up three third period goals to Chicago in Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinal, he was the one Canuck who showed up rust free to start the game and held the home team in there when they were outshot 8-2 in the first third of the first period.

He won his fifth game of the playoffs, equalling his total from his only other occasion in the playoffs two years ago, in facing 31 Chicago shots.

This Stanley Cup season Vancouver fans have heard Luongo asked a lot of questions about a lot of things. And his answers almost always focus on just one thing.

Right from when the first large horseshoe-shaped gathering in front of the first stall inside the Canucks dressing room at the final practice before the start of the St. Louis series to open the playoffs here, Luongo talked about proving himself a winner.

This year, the Canucks made the controversial decision to name Luongo captain (he wears the captain's 'C' on his mask) and while he said it hasn't made any real difference in how he's operated during the regular season or during the playoffs, he's definitely leading by example.

"I figure this is the best chance I've ever had in the NHL," he said back at the beginning of this playoff season. "It's really exciting with this team and we're capable of doing some things. We have a real chance here to do some damage. We're playing for one goal here and that's the Cup. That's what everyone talks about. How many rings do you have? It would be nice to go through a career with at least one Stanley Cup, no? I assume half my career is done with and I haven't even come close. Time is ticking."

EXTRA LEVEL

Going into this series, he dialled it up even more.

"Once you get to the playoffs, there's always that extra level and some players, you don't know what it is, but they have it," Luongo, 30, said.

"That's the type of player I want to be. In the playoffs, with the chips down and facing the most crucial moment, you want to be at your best.

"Winning fuels me. That's what I like."

This for a guy who was hoping to re-up long term in Florida before he was traded here by Mike Keenan. That has never really computed and you never really get an answer when you bring that up, either. But there's no doubt it's true that the winning is fuelling him. There's no doubt that Luongo wants this and wants it now.

The Montreal native who grew up having Grant Fuhr as his favourite player said the highlight of his career so far has been winning two gold medals at the world hockey championships and the gold medal in the 2004 World Cup.

Sundin, who has never won a Stanley Cup and knows what it's like to be a big deal in a Canadian hockey city, said Luongo has even been a study for him.

"I don't follow him around every day," Sundin said of what it's like to be Roberto Luongo here right now.

"There's no doubt he's the key guy. He's one of the hardest working guys and one of the greatest guys in the dressing room, too."

Alex Burrows, the former ECHL player who blossomed into a star in the last two weeks of the season and the first round of the playoffs, has the stall beside Luongo in the dressing room.

"Obviously, he's our leader. He's our best player. Everybody knows that. He can win a game by himself. There's not a lot of shooters that can beat him with a clean shot, even if it's in the slot. We depend on him."

You can have the Sedin twins making magic and Sundin making news, but Canuck fans have come to know that it's really all about Luongo. When he's on, there's nobody better.

terry.jones@sunmedia.ca

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CAPTAINS IN THE CREASE

Roberto Luongo is the first goaltender to be named team captain of an NHL team since the Montreal Canadiens' Bill Durnan in the 1947-'48 season. Before 1948-'49, the NHL passed a rule prohibiting goalies to act as captain or assistants in what could be called the 'Durnan Rule.' The Canadiens keeper left his crease so much to argue calls that opponents protested saying that his actions gave the Canadiens frequent timeouts during strategic points in games. Here is a list of some of the other NHL goaltenders to wear the 'C'.

Goaltender Team Years

John Ross Roach Toronto St. Patricks 1924-25

George Hainsworth Montreal Canadiens 1932-33

Charlie Gardiner Chicago Black Hawks 1933-34

Bill Durnan Montreal Canadiens 1947-48


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