Roberto Luongo vs. Cory Schneider: Looking back at hockey’s goaltending soap opera

On Tuesday night in Vancouver, two men who despise each other will meet.

They have the same job, only one was sent packing last summer. They’re competitive to a fault, and sometimes that fire would spill over into the public eye. The notion that this reunion could end in punches being traded between the two isn’t all that outlandish.

But enough about Peter DeBoer and John Tortorella …

When the New Jersey Devils meet the Vancouver Canucks, it will be the first time Cory Schneider faces his old team and his old crease-mate, Roberto Luongo. Their reunion is far less contentious than that of their coaches, whose nastiness was on display in the Devils’ rivalry with Tortorella’s New York Rangers.

Luongo already defused any sense of animosity with a tweet that referenced the humorous skit he and Schneider did for TSN about their rivalry:

But then again, why would there be animosity between the players when it’s the organization that made a complete hash out of what should have been a blessing of riches, managing to lose Schneider, alienate Luongo and create an undeniable distraction for a franchise that was one win away from the Stanley Cup in 2011?

The soap opera that was Luongo vs. Schneider boils down to a few distinct moments, each of which changed the course of the franchise and the goaltenders’ careers ...

April 24, 2011 – Vancouver Canucks at Chicago Blackhawks

Coach Alain Vigneault turns to Schneider in Game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals, after the Canucks lost Games 4 and 5 by a combined score of 12-2 (and given Luongo’s torment at the hands of the Hawks). Schneider made 17 saves on 20 shots before cramping up, and Luongo returned to play the last 17:29.

He would also start Game 7 and propel the Canucks to the semifinals, finally beating the Blackhawks in overtime on a 31-save performance.

June 10, 2011 – Game 5 vs. Boston Bruins

There were calls for Schneider to start Game 5 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final back in Vancouver after Luongo had been torched for 12 goals in the previous two losses in Boston.

The Canucks were a different team on home ice, having gone 9-3 in the postseason to that date with three shutouts.

In an alternate universe, it’s Schneider who gets the start in Game 5, pitches a shutout like Luongo did and then gets the call in Game 6. Would he have given up three goals on eight shots like Luongo? Probably not.

Are the Canucks Stanley Cup champions in this scenario? And if so, how would “Cory Schneider, Playoff Savior” have changed the Luongo dynamic?

But in reality, the Canucks could have still given Schneider the start in Game 6 in Boston. It made total sense, given how Luongo played in Beantown. But when Lou pitched a shutout in Game 5, Vigneault’s hand was forced. He couldn’t bench Luongo after that. He just couldn’t.

April 3, 2012 – Anaheim Ducks at Vancouver Canucks

GM Mike Gillis had a plan for Schneider, and the goalie ruined it by being really, really good.

“Three years ago, we had planned it. Then Cory became a great young goaltender. Roberto took us to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final and won a gold medal. His résumé is impeccable,” said Gillis at the NHL Draft. “Our plan three years ago was to develop Cory and move him for a high pick, and that’s what we ultimately did.”

This is, of course, the abridged version, skipping over how the rise of Schneider led to the attempted trade of Luongo and the ongoing soap opera between the pipes. But you get the point.

April 3, 2012, is a great example of this. The Anaheim Ducks went up 4-2 in the second period in Vancouver. Luongo got booed and was pulled. Schneider came in, the Canucks rallied and won in a shootout. Schneider improved to 20-7-1 with a perfect performance. It was moments like this that cemented his place as the next goalie for the franchise. Then came …

April 15, 2012 – Vancouver Canucks at Los Angeles Kings

Game 4 of the Western Conference quarterfinals saw Alain Vigneault bench Luongo in favor of Schneider’s second career playoff start. He stopped 19 of 20 shots in the loss, earning two more starts in the series before the Canucks were eliminated.

But the torch had been passed.

June 29, 2012 – Schneider Re-signs

A restricted free agent that the Canucks were concerned would be poached with an offer sheet, Schneider was given a 3-year, $12-million deal to remain with Vancouver. The thought was that with Schneider locked up, and with him having taken the starting gig in the previous postseason, Luongo would then be traded. And then the season was cut in half, and Luongo’s contract got a whole lot more complicated.

January 6, 2013 – The Lockout Ends

The NHL lockout ended after 113 days, bringing forth a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that would again change the dynamic in the Canucks’ relationship with Luongo. The so-called “Luongo Rule” (a.k.a. “cap recapture”) punished teams that signed players to cap circumventing deals under the previous CBA, like Luongo’s 12-year, $64-million deal that runs through 2022. The cap penalties the Canucks, and any team to which he would be traded, would face if he retired early made this a toxic contract.

As Gillis said after the Schneider trade, he knew he’d end up keeping Luongo “right after the CBA was ratified.”

March 15, 2013 – The Skit

Along with friend and TSN proxy James Duthie, Luongo and Schneider play off their “rivalry” in a skit that completely changes the perception of their relationship, while further cementing Luongo’s reputation as a supreme goofball that he earned on Twitter.

April 3, 2013 – NHL Trade Deadline

Schneider puts together a 6-3-2 streak ahead of the trade deadline. The hockey world waits to see if Luongo would be traded. When he was pulled off the ice during practices, hearts palpitated.

And then … nothing. No deal.

Luongo gave his infamous “my contract sucks” press conference, and it appeared the Canucks weren’t going to ever be able to move the veteran in lieu of Schneider.

May 7, 2013 – Game 4 at San Jose Sharks

Roberto Luongo was given the start in Games 1 and 2 of the 2013 Western Conference quarterfinal against the San Jose Sharks, due to an undisclosed injury to Schneider. But Schneider returned for Games 3 and 4 with the Canucks down 2-0, and couldn’t rally them – losing both games, including Game 4 in overtime. He had a chance to play the hero. He didn’t; just under two months later, he was gone.

June 30, 2013 – NHL Draft

A gleeful Gary Bettman announces to a stunned New Jersey crowd that Schneider had been traded to the Devils for the No. 9 overall pick, which was used on center Bo Hovart of the London Knights. Luongo was told about the trade as it was being announced by Canucks owner Francesco Aquilini, who visited the goalie in Florida. Luongo was shocked, and shocked he wasn’t consulted on the trade.

Having taken that risk, the Canucks began attempting to smooth things out with Luongo, as Schneider prepared to share time with yet another goaltending great.

• • •

Luongo and Schneider have both downplayed their battle, and hoped to move on.

Said Luongo:

“It wasn't an easy situation to be in for both of us. We leaned on each other for support and made the best of it. He deserves to start. Unfortunately he's in a situation right now where he's not able to do that (sharing with Martin Brodeur) so I kind of feel for him in that way. But obviously his time will come. He just has to wait a little.”

Said Schneider:

“I'm hoping this will be the final chapter but I don't know if it will be for you guys. I'm sure every time we play the Canucks it will be brought up and that's fine. Obviously it's the first time back since the trade and it's exciting, it's fun, it's different and I'm just hoping to move on from here once this is done and just start playing hockey.”

Schneider’s right: It’s not the final chapter. It never will be until either the star or the understudy retire … or when one finally breaks through to win a Stanley Cup.

But they’re tied together in a rivalry not of their making. Their success or failure will be less definitive for their careers than it will be for the Canucks.

Sometimes cheers for Schneider meant detracting from Luongo. But not this time. This time, the fans that warmly greet Schneider will be greeting a player that did everything he could to not rock the boat, despite the predicament he was in. Ditto Luongo. They were both in a soap opera, but refused to inflate the drama. They face each other as they carried themselves: as professionals.