There are major differences in Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo
and Florida’s Tomas Vokoun
Luongo was born in the hockey hotbed of Montreal, home of “Les Glorieux” -- the Montreal Canadiens, who have won 24 Stanley Cups, more than any other team.
Vokoun was born in the tiny postcard city of Karlovy Vary, known in the English-speaking world as Carlsbad. Situated in Bohemia along the western side of the Czech Republic, Karlovy Vary is a spa city of 54,000 people and is more famous for its hot springs than hockey.
The emergence of the pair as top NHL goaltenders is also a study in contrast.
Luongo entered the NHL in a blaze of glory. After a phenomenal junior hockey career, he was chosen in the first round, fourth overall, in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft by the New York Islanders. That made him the highest drafted goaltender in NHL history at the time.
Luongo played in only 24 games for the Islanders before being traded to Florida in 2000, along with current Panthers captain Olli Jokinen, in exchange for journeyman wingers Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish. During the course of five seasons in Florida, Luongo graduated from being one of the best “young” goalies in the NHL to being one of the best goalies … period.
Luongo improved all aspects of his game with each successive season, but he was nothing short of spectacular in 2003-04. Then, Luongo faced 500 more shots (2,475) than any other goalie in the League and his 2,303 saves surpassed the NHL high of 2,214 set by Felix Potvin in 1996-97. Potvin’s mark had been the record since the League began recording saves in a season starting in 1976-77.
While toiling behind a porous defense, Luongo posted seven shutouts and led his peers in save percentage for most of the season. The Panthers didn’t manage to win many games, but their victories would have been halved if Luongo had not been there. His gold medal experience with Team Canada at the 2003 World Championships in Finland motivated Luongo to bring his game to the next level. He went 4-0 in the tournament with one shutout and a 1.98 GAA. Perhaps his finest moment came in the gold medal game when he stopped 37 of 39 shots, including a breakaway opportunity by Team Sweden’s superstar Mats Sundin.
”That game was the most pressure situation I had been in my whole life,” says Luongo, now entering his prime at 28. “ I came out of it successful, so when I got to training camp (that) year, I was very confident and very relaxed, and I think the fact that I started the year off strong really helped me out the rest of the way.”
Unable to come to contract terms with the Panthers in the summer of 2006, Luongo was involved in a multi-player deal that landed him with the Canucks, a team that had been suffering from inconsistent goaltending for over a decade. Luongo’s arrival on the West Coast heralded the fact that the Canucks could put their goaltending woes behind them. Last season, he broke a franchise record with his career-high 47 wins. And the wins keep piling up this season.
”Goaltending is a huge part,” Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault said of his team’s success. “We can never kid ourselves on that. A big part of us being on the right side on those wins is ‘Louie’ making anywhere from five to 10 saves that you need. … We all know what he means to our team and we’re very happy to have him with us.”
Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby faced Luongo in a Canucks uniform for the first time on Dec. 8 and was clear in his assessment.
"We all know what he means to our team and we’re very happy to have him with us." - -- Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault
”(Vancouver) is a team that is pretty complete,” Crosby said. “They’ve got some great offensive players, they’re great defensively and when you have a goalie like Luongo, you’ve got a chance to win every night. A lot of guys will tell you that you don’t see much net when you’re shooting on him. He is one of the best, if not the best.”
It took the Panthers only one season to realize that if they are going to contend in the Eastern Conference they have to address the gaping void left by Luongo’s departure. Wisely, the club’s brass turned their attention to acquiring Vokoun, also in the prime of his career at 31.
“It was a lot of work and a lot of good luck,” says Florida assistant general manager Randy Sexton. “We had been working with Nashville for some time on a variety of things and those who follow what has been going on in Nashville know that there was a little turbulence there. (Nashville GM) David Poile decided that it was a ‘must’ move and we were able to conclude the transaction because we got aggressive on what it took to get Tomas. But we feel in retrospect that it was good deal for everybody. Nashville has started to rebuild already and we’ve got a top five goalie who is under contract long term, is young enough, and an increbible competitor. It worked out well for everybody.”
When Luongo was dealt to Vancouver there was mixed reaction among the Panthers faithful.
“There were two camps,” Sexton said. “There was certainly the camp that was upset that we traded Roberto, but there was also the other camp that felt that it was time for a change. All of that is forgotten. Roberto has established himself as a wonderful goaltender and is doing fabulously well in Vancouver and Tomas has done the same thing here.”
Doing fabulously well wasn’t always the case for Vokoun, who took a completely different path to stardom than his counterpart in Vancouver.
Vokoun’s place among the NHL’s elite was earned gradually. The determined Czech started his pro career in 1995-96 with the (ECHL) Wheeling Nailers and was considered by the Montreal Canadiens as an expendable minor leaguer. Finding himself as the third goalie behind Jose Theodore in Montreal, Vokoun bounced around the minors before being selected by the Predators in the 1998 expansion draft. Working with goaltending expert Mich Korn helped Vokoun emerge as top flight NHL netminder.
”Our scouts were very perceptive to have taken him at the expansion draft,” says Korn, the Predators’ goaltending coach. ”That was a shock to a lot of people. He was always an overweight kid and played behind Theodore in the minors. Our scouts found him and brought him to us. Tomas put his mind to getting into really great shape and learning to be a professional.”
Just as the Predators faithful did for eight seasons in Nashville, fans in Florida are starting to embrace Vokoun as their own.
”They really have,” Sexton said. “They’ve got a few cheers established already for him. What’s most interesting about Tomas is what an incredibly focused competitor he is. The work that he puts in is to not only make himself ready, but also making sure that our team is ready is terrific to observe.”
There’s something to be said for coming up through the school of hard knocks.
“No doubt,” Sexton agreed. “Absolutely no doubt. We are great believers in that and if you look at Tomas, you see that despite his success he has never lost that work ethic. He wasn’t happy with the way he played in the first couple games for us. What did he do? He came to practice extra early and worked with Pierre (Groulx) our goalie coach. He was in watching clips. He was in the gym. Tomas is doing everything that he needs to do to not only get back to where he was, but to continue to improve and that is a great example for our younger players.”
Luongo and Vokoun. Two goalies from remarkably different places whose passageway to stardom is poles apart. The one thing they have in common is providing living proof to the adage that the goalie is the most important position on a hockey team.
“Absolutely,” Sexton said. “A strong goalie makes a mediocre team competitive. A weak goalie on a strong team makes that team mediocre. Your goalie is always your best penalty killer and our view these days in the new National Hockey League is specialty teams and goaltending wins games. Think about it. Goaltending on five-on-five makes the difference. Goaltending in penalty-killing makes the difference. The only thing the goalie can’t do is help you on the power play.”