Last Wednesday, Roberto Luongo appeared on the Team 1040 morning show with Scotty Rintoul and Jason Botchford. Among other topics, he talked about winning streaks, shootouts, and first star salutes. It was innocuous. Then, towards the end of the telephone interview, Jason Botchford asked an interesting question. "I find that you're having a lot more fun," he said, "Do you feel that way as well?"
Luongo's response was fascinating to me:
"I try to have fun every time I go out there. You know, maybe I try to have more fun with you guys, that might be a difference. But, I mean, playing the game has always been fun for me. That's not gonna change or has changed this year. I think I'm trying to be more loose in the locker room around the media, and not take it so seriously as I have in the past."
It's interesting that, in his response to a much more open-ended question, Luongo zeroed in on his approach to the media. I think it speaks to a few things:
First, as much as we think we know these guys, we really don't. We piece together our picture of athletes like Roberto Luongo from soundbytes and speculation, long articles drawn from short statements (much like this piece). And that's not to say that anyone is being dishonest--only that we're not getting the full picture. How can we? Outside of games, we only see Luongo in his interaction with the media, which is a little like only seeing somebody in their interaction with the department of motor vehicles. Seeing how someone deals with a necessary nuisance will only give you a limited perspective, and if you're not careful, you'll mistakenly assume it's a larger picture than it is. In this case, Luongo appears to have fully changed because his interactions with the media--the only interactions we see--have changed.
Second, I was wrong. The captaincy really did affect Luongo negatively. That said, it's not for the reasons you might think. He wasn't burdened by the responsibility of leadership, and by all accounts, he did a fabulous job. He remains a vital part of the leadership core and definitely has the tools to lead that room. However, he wasn't prepared for the sudden change in his relationship with the media. Suffice it to say, he didn't like it.
Who would? From the moment he took on the captaincy, he was blamed for every goal, questioned at every turn, and unfairly and solely criticized for his team's mistakes. As captain, it was his job to professionally and soberly address the unfair attacks levied against him, and he couldn't deflect them away with patronization, sarcasm and humour--his preferred approach. The captaincy mitigated Luongo's ability to take the overserious Vancouver media lightly; he was unmasked, both metaphorically and literally. In place of this lightness, he met their lack of perspective head-on, then fell apart. Suddenly, Luongo as we knew him was gone, replaced by a man who struggled to reign over his emotions. And, when we lost him, he briefly misplaced himself.
Luongo's solemn run as captain made us all forget how funny he had been before. The previous comedy shorts with James Duthie were all but forgotten until they resurrected their partnership this summer. It was in one of these sketches that Luongo wisely and openly joked about his famous trip to the bathroom in the 2007 playoffs, tempering criticism. Recall an important April 2007 game against the LA Kings, where Luongo let in a bad goal, then deflected criticism by claiming he did it to charge up his team:
"I got to give myself a lot of credit on the second goal, I just wanted to do something to get the boys going so I think it worked out well and we were strong after that," Luongo joked. "I had to do something; it was either that or get into a fight, so I figured I'd let one in from the corner."
Roberto Luongo needs to be able to laugh, and after two years of feeling muted, Funny Bob has returned to form. When attacked for skipping his first star salute and routine stick giveaway, Luongo casually joked, "I'll give away two sticks next time." To deflect speculation that he was upset about sharing his workload with Cory Schneider, Luongo joked, "I'm good for a game a week these days." You could write a book on the catharsis inherent in he and James Duthie's hilarious poetry short. Like many, including myself, Luongo uses humour as a defense mechanism. I can safely say that, without this tactic at my disposal, I'd feel completely naked. I couldn't possibly be at ease.
We all know Roberto Luongo is an emotional guy, and if he can't find perspective through humour, these emotions can get the best of him. This is a guy who won a gold medal despite visibly trembling at the weight of national expectations. Even there, he tried to temper his nervous play with humour. This is the guy who wept openly when his team was eliminated by the Chicago Blackhawks two years ago. The following year, when the Canucks suffered a nearly identical defeat, Luongo awkwardly reverted to humour to combat the familiar wave of misery. "I kept it under seven goals," he joked. The unexpected injection of levity was likely a very freeing moment for him, but the distraught fanbase was not in the mood.
This moment, deemed inappropriate by many, was likely the moment Luongo decided the captaincy wasn't for him. He knew it would be an ill-received statement, especially as the team representative, but for his sake and sanity, he said it anyway. He needed to. Understandably, he returned the following season having relinquished the C, and with a newfound commitment to patronizing the local media.
It was the right choice. I like this Luongo much better. He probably does too.