By Stephanie Maniago
Shattering team records, becoming the highest drafted goaltender in league history (to that date), and acting as a key component of Hockey Canada's program were just a few of Roberto Luongo
's accomplishments during his early career -- a pretty impressive resume considering that he had done all that before he was old enough to take a sip of celebratory champagne.
Evaluating his rise to fame, one notices an omission that one might expect to co-exist with such high levels of success: any indication of an inflated ego. How was it that someone could be so level-headed considering he had been touted as the next Quebec goaltending sensation, following in the likes of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur?
The answer to this question could not be summed up in a 30-second sound bite, made for TV. But rather it would take us on a long, fascinating voyage, starting across the country in Quebec.
Growing up in St-Leonard, an Italian community in Montreal, there were some activities that were inherent to the neighbourhood -- playing soccer in the surrounding parks, eating delicious food at the local cafes and, of course, cheering on the hometown Habs. It seemed unnatural, then, that Edmonton Oilers' goalie Grant Fuhr would become his hockey idol and sushi his favourite food. He was an individual, evidently, that never followed the herd. Italian Roots
Luongo grew up in a typical Italian household where family reigned supreme. Roberto was the oldest of three boys. With both parents working full-time, he naturally fell into the protector role of his younger siblings becoming someone upon whom they could always depend and rely -- a role that would later epitomize his career.
The family owned a shoe store, and it was there that Roberto held his first job. Many years have passed since his employment at the store, but he has one distinct memory of his time working.
"The one thing that I remember most was the lunch breaks," Roberto reminisces. "I used to pick up the food from the restaurant next door and bring it back to the shoe store and eat in the back with my father."
Whether eating at the store or watching the Italian League on television (which is where his love of soccer developed), quality time with family is obviously something that Roberto still thinks of with great fondness.
By the time Roberto was a young teenager, his skills on the ice were being recognized far and wide. The pressure to decide what path his career would take began to increase. That pressure was never felt at home, though.
"My family has always been behind me, one hundred per cent," says Roberto. "Growing up they never pressured me into becoming an NHL player. They knew that was something that was really hard to do and always left the decision up to me."
With such obvious love and support behind him, it was understandably a difficult time when Roberto had to move away from home at the age of 16 to pursue his dream of playing hockey. Making A Move
In 1995, Luongo made the trek from his home in Montreal to Val D'Or, over 500 kilometres away. It was the first time that he had been away from his family for an extended length of time.
With his teammates in similar situations, a brotherhood began to form. They all became quite close and partook in group events with perhaps the most memorable taking place during the 1998 QMJHL playoffs when a unique twist on the "playoff beard" emerged.
As the colours began to change in the spring, so, too, did the hair colour of the Foreurs. It began with one player dying his hair blonde and, in a domino effect, the rest all decided to follow suit. That year during the playoffs Val d'Or would go on to the Memorial Cup Final.
When Roberto was traded to Acadie-Bathurst the following season, he relayed the infamous blonde hair success story to his teammates.
"When I showed up with blonde hair, a couple of guys had it and, within a matter of a week, all of them had it," Luongo recalls. "It may have seemed like a little thing (to outsiders), but it really meant a lot in bonding as teammates." And it had an obvious effect on their play as Acadie-Bathurst, like Val d'Or, advanced to the Memorial Cup.
His success in the minor leagues and international play did not go unnoticed, and soon he had graduated to the National Hockey League playing for the New York Islanders. After one season with the Islanders, Luongo would be traded to the Florida Panthers where he remained for five years.
Then, on the eve of the 2006 Entry Draft in Vancouver, you could feel the eerie calmness in the city, like that before a storm. For a weekend that was supposed to be action packed and filled with fun, it seemed a little disappointing at first. So, like any hospitable host would do to liven things up at a party, Canucks Senior Vice President and General Manager Dave Nonis gave the weekend a jolt by making a blockbuster trade that would see the goaltender become the newest member of the Vancouver organization.
While surprised by the move at first, Luongo quickly displayed his pleasure in joining the Canucks by signing a long-term deal with the club.
He and wife Gina made the trip to Vancouver in early July for the announcement. A testament to his dedication to his new club, Luongo even missed a good portion of a World Cup soccer game featuring Italy to be introduced to the local media for the first time.
The trade also altered his summer schedule as Roberto cancelled his appearance at the World Series of Poker.
"I was supposed to go to play this year," says Roberto of his invitation to the event, "but when the trade happened, there was a change in plans. I got really busy and wanted to make sure that things were all settled before coming to Vancouver. Hopefully, I'll get the opportunity to participate next summer."
Identified for his quick glovehand, it's not surprising that Luongo has become an aficionado of poker, playing the game and never missing it on television. He "TiVos" it when not at home, and it has become one of his biggest hobbies when away from hockey. A Homecoming
With the latest move, the unwavering support of his family still remains, despite the fact that he's now playing for an opposing Canadian city. His brothers hope to make it out to see Roberto don the Canucks jersey and Vancouver's trip to Montreal this season has already been circled on the Luongo calendar.
"I'm sure there will be a lot of ticket requests," jokes Roberto. "When I played for Florida, we got to Montreal twice a year, and they (family and friends) would be in for about 20-25 tickets. Now that I'm only going to be there once every three years, the list is probably going to grow."
After hearing his story, it turns out that the answer of how the fame doesn't get to his head is really quite simple: he doesn't allow it.
His insistence that he's a normal goaltender definitely rings of truth. One doubts there'll be stories like that of Jacques Plante knitting items for his teammates to calm his nerves or of Gary Smith taking showers during intermissions while Luongo's here. While Roberto has an undeniable passion and talent for hockey, he has never let it define him.
With his family and friends on one side of the scale and his hobbies on the other, Luongo has mastered the delicate science of harmony.
Roberto has ultimately been able to reach levels of such great success because he has never allowed his ego to get in the way of it -- a trend that will undoubtedly continue with his new team.