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Treating the team

by Derek Jory / Vancouver Canucks

After the Vancouver Canucks came from behind to beat the Colorado Avalanche two weeks ago to end a four-game road trip, a new song was playing in the locker room post-game.

It was Feel So Close by Calvin Harris and the lyrics define the team as it heads into the 2012 NHL Playoffs.

“...There's no stopping us right now... I feel so close to you right now...”

The Canucks truly came together during their unforgettable run to the Stanley Cup Final last year and the guys remained closer than ever at the mid-point of this season.

Roberto Luongo took it upon himself to ensure that wouldn’t change.

During a four-game, 10,000 kilometre east/southeast road trip that began with Vancouver beating Boston 4-3 on January 7th, the Canucks played in Florida, Luongo’s old stomping ground. Between game days the former Panthers goaltender treated teammates to an Italian feast at his father-in-law Umberto Cerbone’s restaurant Pizza Time.

In the words of Umberto, the food and the experience were both “Fuhgeddaboudit.”

CanucksTV was there when Luongo brought the team together and revealed a side of himself Canucks fans aren’t accustomed to. The episode Heart of a Canuck: It’s Pizza Time, airs Sunday night at 7:30 p.m. on Sportsnet Pacific.

When the Canucks walked into Pizza Time, a family-owned pizzeria in Boca Raton, Florida, after practice on Sunday, January 8th, they were greeted with a warm, genuine handshake from Umberto, who wore gold chains, bracelets, rings and had his hair slicked back, all trademarks of a proud Italian.

Roberto is family, so if you’re with Roberto, you’re family as well. The welcome was as warm as the ovens rising dough in the back of the cozy trattoria; four booths line both walls, three large tables are set up in the middle and pictures are everywhere, some of movie stars and singers, most of Luongo.

There were fake plants and real dishes and street signs, red and white tablecloths and an unmistakable aroma of deliciousness. When Luongo was traded to Florida from New York, it was the distinct Italian charm of Pizza Time that first brought him in and kept him coming back.

Pizza Time, then located in Coral Springs near the Panthers practice facility, was the gathering place for players. Scott Mellanby, a forward with Florida at the time, was the first to bring Luongo in, as requested by Umberto, who heard of the trade, knew the goaltender was in a vulnerable place and wanted to make him feel at home during a turbulent time in his young career.

Luongo's life was changed forever.

“I remember walking in there and the first question he asked me is if I was Italian, and I am, so we hit it off right away,” laughed Luongo, who has a home in Florida and plans to retire in the Sunshine State.

Little did Luongo know, but meeting Umberto and becoming a regular at Pizza Time would drastically alter the path he was on. After a year in Florida he met Umberto’s daughter Gina and was instantly smitten.

“After Roberto and I were friends for a while, I told my chefs that when Roberto comes in, don’t even charge him, he’s like part of the family, we adopted him,” said Umberto proudly.

“Then one time my chef said we have a bit of a problem, he said Roberto saw Gina and he likes her. I told him I wasn’t going to get involved, whatever will be, will be.”

Umberto did suggest sending flowers though, and “for a period, my daughter was getting roses every day,” he smiled, “that’s how it started.”

Roberto and Gina have been married for seven years and have two children, Gabriella and Gianni, both of whom were wrapped around daddy as he was surrounded by the men he goes to war with on the ice.

Luongo was all smiles like never before and relaxed as ever as his world’s collided and his family and work family united.

“As a member of the team, you always want to do things to show appreciation, not only when we come here, but maybe once or twice in a season you invite your D-men or whatever it is out for dinner with you,” said Luongo.

“This is obviously a perfect opportunity for me to have all my teammates here and members of the staff as well. They enjoyed the food and I’m glad I could have everyone here.”

While Luongo allowed a glimpse into his personal life that is rarely, if ever, seen in this light at Rogers Arena, it was the mountainous praise from Umberto that leads to a deeper respect for the Canucks goaltender.

Umberto knows hard work and sacrifice. He was 13-years-old when his parents moved to Florida from Italy. Six months after relocating, tragedy struck and Umberto’s uncle was killed in a car accident, his father badly injured in the wreck and unable work for the foreseeable future.

“I went to the nearest pizzeria,” said Umberto, “and I said ‘teach me the business, I have to take care of my parents.’ And it’s been 50 years I’ve been in business.”

Umberto said Luongo is cut from the same cloth and that his win-at-all-costs attitude is at times perceived as arrogance, and his dedication to hockey and the Canucks sometimes gets lost in the shuffle of wins and losses.

“I’ve never seen anyone as hardworking as him. When he’s here in the summer, his discipline is incredible. I can't say enough about him, he’s a gentleman, he’s a great father, he’s a great husband, he’s a great son-in-law, he’s a great brother, it’s beautiful. He’s a beautiful kid.”

Luongo is only one piece of the puzzle, it’s a team game, but his devotion to the Canucks is a big reason the team feels so close and is so close to its ultimate goal.

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