It may seem, at first glance, like an odd fit, Roberto Luongo in net for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but the 33-year-old goaltender does have a major personal connection to a key Leafs' figure, a relationship that extends back more than half a lifetime.
The connection is Francois Allaire, the 52-year-old goaltending consultant for the Leafs (whose contract, by coincidence, is just expiring).
Allaire is a legend among goaltending coaches, a true guru. He first made his name mentoring Patrick Roy for a decade. Starting in the mid-1980s, Allaire helped develop Roy's play as the goaltender won two playoff MVP trophies in 1986 and 1993, which carried the Montreal Canadiens to Stanley Cup victories. Later, Allaire coached Jean-Sebastien Giguere in Anaheim to two Cup finals, with Giguere winning the Conn Smythe in 2003 as the Ducks lost the Cup.
Luongo was a teenager, 14, when he was first coached by Allaire at Allaire's goaltending school in a Montreal suburb. It was there that Allaire began to mould the raw talent of the boy, adding technique and imbuing his preferred butterfly style to Luongo's already-quick reflexes, such as a lightening glove hand forged playing hours and hours of street hockey.
"He has a kind-of aura around him," remembered Allaire during an interview in late March for a profile of Luongo before the playoffs. "That's the first thing I saw in him in junior: 'Who's that guy in the net? He's a big guy. He looks like a goalie.' It was, 'Wow. Who is that guy?' That was Roberto."
Talk of a Luongo traded intensified on Thursday. Several credible reports said Luongo plans to present Vancouver a list of cities where he is willing to move, with Toronto in the running. In Vancouver on Thursday morning, Canucks president/general manager Mike Gillis didn't deny the reports on a regular weekly spot on team broadcaster Team 1040 radio. Gillis said the two sides, which met Tuesday morning, were set to speak again soon.
Luongo grew up in the east end Montreal, the neighbourhood of Saint-Leonard, and was seven years younger than another netminder from the neighbourhood, Martin Brodeur, who also developed under tutelage from Allaire. Luongo, as he came into the NHL, worked with Allaire through the early years in his career but, more recently, hadn't shared ice time -- until last summer.
On Tuesday, when Luongo first revealed he was willing to accept a trade, the goaltender revealed he had started to work with Allaire again. Speaking in a mostly empty Vancouver Canucks locker room after cameras and most reporters had left, Luongo mentioned that Allaire had bought a home in Florida, where Luongo lives in the offseason, and they were on the ice together last August.
The Allaire connection in Toronto is in flux. Allaire would have to sign a new deal to carry on with the Leafs, as he weighs other business possibilities, and he caught flak from some critics for the poor play of the Leafs goaltenders, James Reimer and Jonas Gustavsson. It led Toronto president/general manager general manager Brian Burke to defend Allaire in early April, insisting in one report that Allaire is "not going anywhere."
Allaire, in the late March interview with The Globe, said he considered Luongo among the elite NHL goaltenders, and also highlighted a consideration fewer people have mentioned, his character. Luongo, Allaire and others interviewed said, is a leader who wore the captain's C in Vancouver for a reason, a man who teammates rally around, and a good friend to those teammates.
In just one example, Luongo forged a strong friendship with Cory Schneider, his understudy who could have been kept at a distance as a rival.
This veteran character could benefit the Toronto dressing room in general and its young goaltenders specifically.
"He's a guy everyone wants to be around," said Allaire.
Allaire is not the only goaltending coach somewhere else in the NHL with whom Luongo remains close. Ian Clark, who first coached Luongo in Florida, and then for several years in Vancouver, is now in Columbus. The Blue Jackets have been mentioned by numerous commentators as a potential suitor for Luongo.
Clark, like Allaire, remains a full-faith believer in Luongo, saying the netminder "embodies leadership." Clark also said that he would, without hesitation, trust Luongo in net for a big game with everything on the line.
"I wouldn't ever question having Roberto Luongo between the pipes moving into one of those situations. Ever," said Clark in a late-March interview.
On Luongo's goaltending, much maligned by some, Allaire defended his former protege's work unreservedly. On questions of psychology, and delivering in big games, Allaire several times insisted that the line between winning and losing is razor thin and questioned detractors who denounce Luongo's at-times poor play in key moments.
What impressed Allaire when Luongo was a teenager impresses Allaire today.
"At that time, and still today, his size in the net," said Alalire of the 6-foot-3, 217-pound netminder. "Roberto's got the possibility to do a save out of nothing. Sometimes, the puck is coming, and then there's an elbow coming out, a blocker, pads coming out - there's not too many people who can do that."
Allaire suggested Vancouver fans, who have soured on Luongo, grew to take the goaltender's talent for granted. Just this season, Luongo's save-percentage of .919 matched his average for his career, yet it seemed few Vancouver fans considered his season to be a strong one.
"After a while, it's normal, everyone can do that," said Allaire. "It's not everyone that can do that. It's the special guys."
Like Patrick Roy leaving Montreal, practically ejected from the city with a resounding good-riddance, Allaire felt Vancouver didn't really understand the talent they watched each game.
Speaking weeks before a Luongo trade was even in the realm of possibilities, Allaire said:
"Sometimes, I think you appreciate a guy more when the guy is gone. It's what happened in Montreal. When Patrick Roy was traded, people said, 'That's good, that's good.' Now, for years, they just regret it."