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The Olympians: Roberto Luongo

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

The XXI Olympic Winter Games will be here in a flash with Vancouver becoming home to some of the greatest athletes in the world for a majestic two week period.

The Vancouver Canucks will boast seven Olympians competing in men’s hockey. To celebrate this, has been featuring a different Olympian each week leading up to the games. In the final installment we bring you Roberto Luongo, goaltender with Team Canada.

Heads would roll if Roberto Luongo and Team Canada skated onto the ice at Canada Hockey Place for the first time to the tune “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie, but it wouldn’t be a word of a lie.

Every country competing in men’s hockey at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver has expectations for its team and while gold is the goal, a mere podium finish would fulfill some appetites.

Not Canada’s.

Our hockey-crazed nation isn’t pulling any punches: it’s gold or bust – so much so that entire 2010 Games as a whole could be remembered as a colossal failure if the visions we Canadians have of gold-medals dancing in our heads doesn’t come true.

I realize that sounds extreme, but even from your own perspective, is there anything you’re more excited to watch or any event you want to win more?

Welcome to the reality Canucks netminder Roberto Luongo will be faced with when men’s hockey begins on February 16, not that it hasn’t been in the back of his mind since being named one of three Team Canada keepers back in December.

“It’s huge, especially that it’s in Vancouver,” said Luongo, who will be taking part in his second consecutive Games.

“Twice is exciting, you just think about it and your stomach gets butterflies. Anytime you get a chance to wear the jersey it’s a great honour and the fact that it’s in Canada and nonetheless in Vancouver, makes it so special for me.”

The fact that it’s in Canada and nonetheless in Vancouver also makes it the most anticipated tournament ever, one with just three preliminary games before the men are separated from the boys in playoffs.

Canada, and the other 11 participants, are guaranteed only four games, from there it’s one and done if any weaknesses are exposed. On paper the Canadians are strong from top to bottom with ocean depth at forward, veteran experience on defence and three netminders capable of starting any given game and all that means diddly-squat.

The true north strong and free need to come together as a group a lot faster than it did in 2006 when Canada was shutout in three of six games. Luongo, for one, doesn’t believe that will be a problem this time around.

“I think that’s what the camp was for, we spent four or five days together as a group getting to know each other, first and foremost, and then learning a lot about systems and how we’re going to play once we get there,” said Luongo, in regards to the summer camp held in Calgary last year.

“Once we get there we only have one practice, we don’t have that much time so we’ve got to know what’s going on right away and be ready to go because the next day we’re playing our first game.”

Canada opens the tournament against Norway before playing Switzerland and the Unitd States in its final two preliminary games, and while the forward trios and defensive pairs have all but been decided, who starts in goal remains at large.

Luongo, Martin Brodeur and Marc-Andre Fleury all present an interesting case for why they should be between the pipes, but the common belief in the hockey world is that Brodeur, who led Canada to gold in 2002, will carry the weight.

This season Brodeur leads this threesome in wins with 33, two more than Luongo, yet the two are even in goals against average at 2.28 and Luongo sports a better save percentage at .921 to Brodeur’s .916.

Tomato, tomato, or one of the most important decisions facing Team Canada’s hockey staff?

Either way, Canada will put up a fight for hockey supremacy that Luongo can hardly wait for.

“Especially with this one in Canada, there’s so much attention brought to it and it’s such a short tournament; it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.

“The build up is something that you’re only going to live once in your life, the Olympics only comes every four years, so in Canada it’s rare.”

It’s funny listening to Luongo speak of the Olympics as he’s just as much a fan as anyone else, especially of the talent Canada has put together in Vancouver.

“It’s very intimidating,” laughed Luongo, “but we’re all human and we all do the same things and once we get in that locker room we’re all just a bunch of guys having fun playing the game.

“That’s the great part of playing with Team Canada, everybody is pretty down to earth and we all get along and it’s pretty fun to be part of that group.”

The gold medal game in slated for Sunday, February 28 at 12:15 p.m. (PST) and if Canada came forge through to the end and come away atop the podium for the second time in three Games, O Canada will be played in their honour and the anthem will truly heard like never before.

Then and only then will it be time for a Queen song and one in particular comes to mind: We Are the Champions.

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