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A new opportunity

by Ryan Dittrick / Vancouver Canucks
As Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock describes it, “This is a new opportunity.”

“What happened in 2010…that’s over with.”

Among the 47 players invited to Canada’s National Men’s Team Orientation Camp in Calgary, Alberta, no one approves of Babcock’s all-business offering more than Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo.

He’ll be taking the same approach into the 2013-14 NHL campaign.

Luongo enters the upcoming season in a role he’s more accustomed to – one in which he thrived in for the previous six seasons while heir-apparent Cory Schneider patiently waited his turn – Luongo, 34, will once again see the lion’s share of work next season as the Canucks starting netminder.

“I'm happy to be playing and to be a starter again, that's what matters most to me,” Luongo, seen more relaxed and driven to perform than he has in a calendar year, said Sunday during an introductory camp press conference at the Markin MacPhail Centre.

“It’s unfortunate and a shame that we couldn’t be on the ice this week, but this is a good start. At the end of the day, that’s all I want to do – to play and to talk about hockey. It feels great.”

Unable to escape relentless, round-the-clock and rampant public speculation, Luongo seemed destined for a trade. Following the conclusion of the lockout-shortened season in which the veteran appeared in 20 of Vancouver’s 48 games, general manager Mike Gillis said it was “unlikely” Luongo would return.

That all changed on June 30 when Gillis consummated a draft-day deal with New Jersey. As the Prudential Center erupted in cheers, in an instant, Schneider became a Devil and the ninth overall pick (Bo Horvat) belonged to the Canucks.

Finally, it was over. And the reset button was pounded into submission.

The questions are now coming Luongo’s way fast and furious.

Fielding questions at every turn during Hockey Canada media availability Sunday, Luongo didn’t back down. With a smile and gentle jab at the 10-minute mark (“That’s a lot of questions!” he laughed), the veteran politely answered each and every one, reaffirming that he’s better off now after navigating such an emotional rollercoaster.

“You go through stuff throughout your career and throughout your life,” Luongo began, poignantly delivering his take on a muddy situation. “You try to learn from (those experiences) and you try to get stronger as a result of them. I think over the course of the last year I gained a lot of experience on how to deal with tough situations. I think it will make me a better player and person.

“But right now I’m focused on getting back to playing hockey. That’s the bottom line.”

As the Canadian hopefuls gather on the grounds of the 1988 Olympic Winter Games, this week’s orientation camp will not serve as an evaluation tool. While the start of the NHL season will be critical for both Luongo and the Canucks, his performance early on will go a long way to determining his chances for the starting role in Sochi, too.

“He’s been through an emotional, tumultuous time, but I thought he handled it with extreme class and professionalism,” Babcock said of Luongo. “In fact, I’d say I’m proud of the way he handled it. Because of all that, you can tell he has a renewed sense of confidence in himself. But he’s here like everyone else and you have to get off to a good start if you're a goaltender.”

Posting an unblemished 5-0 record and allowing only nine goals throughout the 2010 Winter Olympics, Luongo backstopped Team Canada to a gold medal on home soil in Vancouver. And while the Montreal product considers it “an open competition” for the No. 1 spot this time around, he’s poised to step up and reclaim his title as the nation’s top goaltender.

“Whoever plays best deserves to be the starter,” said Luongo, who’s up against the likes of Mike Smith (Phoenix), Braden Holtby (Washington), Carey Price (Montreal) and recent Stanley Cup winner Corey Crawford (Chicago). “If you work hard and have a good start to the (NHL) season, you’re going to get rewarded for your efforts.

“I want to be there and will do anything I can to earn the spot.”

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