Playing goalie in the National Hockey League is a lot like playing high-stakes tournament poker. One mistake can cost you dearly .
Roberto Luongo understands pressure in both the hockey and poker arenas.
On Saturday at the Rio, Luongo took on the poker world, playing in the World Series of Poker's $10,000 buy-in No Limit Hold'em World Championship.
His entry was funded by British Columbia Lottery Corp., which operates legal online poker games in the Canadian province.
Seat No. 4 at table 352 inside the Rio's Amazon Room had a much different feel than the goalie's crease inside Rogers Arena in downtown Vancouver, where Luongo has been the net-minder for the Vancouver Canucks the past six NHL seasons.
A veteran online poker player, Luongo said the World Series of Poker Main Event was the first time he was playing in a live tournament. He has played poker inside Strip casinos on trips to Las Vegas in recent years while attending the annual NHL awards ceremony, having moderate success.
"I've put in some long shifts online," Luongo said. "I've played in some tough tournaments online. It's different playing the game in a poker room. There is a lot more going on around you in a live game."
As a 12-year NHL goalie - he has also played for the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers - Luongo is used to tuning out the noise and taunts coming from boisterous crowds of more than 18,000 hockey spectators.
Finding that zone seemed to help Saturday as Luongo translated the hockey experience to the World Series of Poker.
Players began at noon with 30,000 each in tournament chips.
As of 10:30 p.m., Luongo had 61,000 in chips and was listed in 21st place, according to tournament trackers .
Luongo's brother, Fabio, was in fifth place with 104,000 in chips.
"My goal is just to shake off the nerves and pick up some chips," Luongo said before play began. "I need to be patient. I would love to get through the first day."
Luongo was recognized and warmly greeted by a few hockey fans as he entered the room to find his seat. He gladly posed for photos and signed a few autographs.
"It's amazing how many Canadians and Vancouver residents you find in Las Vegas," said Luongo, who was born in Montreal.
Luongo was one of several celebrities from the worlds of sports and entertainment playing Saturday in the first of three Day One flights for the Main Event.
Defending Main Event champion Pius Heinz and previous winners Peter Eastgate (2008), Joe Hachem (2005), Jim Bechtel (1993) and Phil Hellmuth Jr. (1989), along with Poker Hall of Fame member Mike Sexton, joined actors Kevin Pollak and Ray Romano and Norwegian Olympic cross country skiing gold medalist Peter Northug in the Amazon Room.
World Series of Poker officials said 1,066 players paid the $10,000 entry fee Saturday.
The figure was a 19 percent increase over last year's first day, which brought in 897 players.
Tournament officials are hopeful entries today and Monday will help push the participant total beyond last year's 6,855 entries, the third-largest in tournament history.
First-place money and other prize payouts for the Main Event will be determined late Monday once it is known how many players kicked in the $10,000 entry fee.
After the three days of starting flights, the field will be reduced as blinds and antes increase.
By July 16, the final table of nine players will be determined.
Those players will return to the Rio at the end of October to play for a multimillion-dollar payday and the most expensive gold bracelet ever awarded to a Main Event winner.
Saturday's survivors return to Rio on Tuesday. Luongo would love to extend his Las Vegas stay a few more days.
Poker helps take his mind off what has been a challenging offseason for Luongo after the top-seeded Canucks were ousted in the first round of the NHL's Stanley Cup playoffs by the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings in five games.
Luongo lost his starting role during the playoffs.
Based on his demotion, media outlets across Canada speculated about Luongo's potential trade to another team, maybe the Chicago Blackhawks or the Florida Panthers.
"It's been a tough a few weeks, but I'm pretty sure it's time to move on," Luongo said. "I've had a great six years in Vancouver. It's a wonderful city and I've really enjoyed my time there."
Luongo also knows hockey's highs. He led Vancouver to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011, losing in Game 7 to the Boston Bruins.
A year earlier, Luongo led Team Canada to the gold medal in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, going undefeated in five starts in goal, including a victory over the silver medal-winning Team USA.
"Poker is a good change of pace after the past couple of weeks," Luongo said. "There are a lot of similarities between poker and hockey. In both games you really have to be aware at all times."
Contact reporter Howard Stutz at hstutz@reviewjournal .com or 702-477-3871. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.