Public Enemy #1

I still remember the day my dad told me the Canucks had traded for Roberto Luongo. I don’t think I stopped smiling for a week. After seven years and eighteen different guys between the pipes (ending with the Bill Buckner of Vancouver, Dan Cloutier), we were getting one of the very best in the game. The only thing that could have helped the team more would have been cloning a third Sedin. When I moved to Vancouver that January, I remember walking down to GM Place and standing in awe of that colossal Luongo photo hanging outside the stadium, thinking to myself “this guy’s going to win us a Stanley Cup”. Most Canucks fans believed the very same.

Fast forward six years to last night. I always laugh whenever I bring someone to a Canucks game for the first time and they inevitably ask me “why are they booing the goaltender?” I can’t laugh at that anymore, because I’ll never again be sure they’re not. Roberto may as well grow a pair of horns, because the people made clear last night he’s going to be the goat in this town for a long, long time. It’s hard to blame the loss on Luongo (no, really) considering who he was standing across the rink from. Henrik Lundqvist showed Vancouver why he’s considered an elite goaltender, and he took all the wind out of the Canucks’ offensive sails in doing so. The only person that could have saved that game was Roberto, and he dropped the ball. Four times. Just like he did against Boston.

Realistically, the loss in the Finals was only the second to last hockey game played at Rogers Arena, so negative reaction to Lu letting pucks get past him can be expected. The bad feelings created by that terrible loss were left to fester all summer long, and last night the fans spat that poison out onto the ice. Whether the loss was Luongo’s fault or not is irrelevant. It was a loss, and that’s what most fans expect from him right now. He’s become the Charlie Brown of hockey: no matter how hard he tries, he just can’t seem to catch a break.

So what happened to that colossal hero we once knew? Was it really so long ago that we beamed with pride as Luongo, in his first season with the Canucks, tied Bernie Parent for the single season win record and took home nominations for the Vezina, Hart, and Pearson Awards? Have we already forgotten the save he made that kept Team Canada alive long enough for Sidney Crosby to score his golden goal right here in Vancouver? What did Roberto do to turn the meaning of that #1 on his back from hero to public enemy?

Enter the Chelsea Dagger.

When Luongo let in seven goals against Chicago in Game 6 of the 2009 Playoffs, with the Madhouse jumping to that mocking tune after every single one, the shine surrounding our beloved netminder began to tarnish. He got humiliated, and so did we.  You could hear the first whispers of discontent in the crowd after that, some demanding he be traded, others simply suggesting to let him go to free agency. Mike Gillis heard neither. When he committed to Luongo for 12 years and $64 million, Gillis unwittingly provided the kindling for the firestorm we see today. From that day forward, the expectations on Luongo went from hopeful to nothing short of Stanley. Fans collectively crossed their arms and waited, only to watch the freewheeling young Hawks kick the Canucks in the soft spot again. Five goals in the final game didn’t help Captain Lu’s cause, and though his contract might be long, the tolerance amongst Canucks fans is not.

Which brings us to last June. One win away from the Stanley Cup, and the Canucks came up snake eyes with Luongo on the hook for seven goals against. That was the proverbial camel straw. What we witnessed last night was the disillusioned city of Vancouver letting Roberto know they blame him for their summertime heartache. Not the rest of the club for putting in just two goals in those tough losses, but to the guy who simply could not stop the Boston Bruins. His shutouts early in the series didn’t matter. Getting to the Finals didn’t matter. The dream season was supposed to end with a party, not a riot, and the burden for that has now publicly been placed on Luongo’s shoulders. Those in the crowd who stuck it to Luongo last night didn’t do it just because he was having a bad game. They did it because they’ve lost faith.

Not everyone feels that way, of course. For every hater, there’s a faithful fan rooting for Lu to do what he does every year, which is to get it together in November. For every boo, there’s a reassuring pat on the back from the guys in the locker room, the ones who go to war with him all year round, saying “we have faith in you”. The expectation this group has is to return to the Finals and do what they couldn’t in June. The team expects Lu to be in net behind them when that happens.  Those who booed him last night do not.

What happens to Roberto Luongo this season is a story that’s far from finished, and one that will be debated with passion daily. No, he’s not the infallible hero we traded for six years ago. He’s just a damn good goalie playing in a town with a history of riding their netminders too hard.  Take note, Mr. Schneider.

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