For anyone who knows me, you know that I stan for John Vanbiesbrouck. He’s my favorite goalie of all-time. He’s the player who got me hooked on hockey and made me want to be a goalie. But it’s time for me to finally admit what I have always refused to do. Roberto Luongo is best goalie in Florida Panthers history and it’s not debatable.
Yea, it took him retiring for me to finally admit it, but it’s time. Roberto Luongo retires as a 5 time All-Star and the Florida Panthers all time leader in Games (494), wins (194), Shutouts (34), and Saves (13941). Even though he never won a Stanley Cup or a Vezina Trophy, he will absolutely go down as one of the greatest goalies of all time. I can go on about all of his on-ice accolades, but there will be more then enough of those articles published over the last few days, so I will talk about what Luongo meant to the Florida Panthers fanbase and more specifically myself.
Luongo was a giant to the Florida Panthers organization from the day he arrived in a trade with the New York Islanders with Olli Jokinen for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. Due to a lot of organizational chaos under then owner Alan Cohen, Luongo was the lone bright light during a very dark era. It would have been really easy for a young kid from Montreal to be bitter that he was stuck playing in front of small crowds in Sunrise while facing the most shots in the NHL year after year, but not him. He embraced it. He loved the small loyal fanbase and we loved him back. Back when fans were allowed to wait outside the player parking lot, Luongo always stopped to sign for fans. To be fair, most players stopped, but it felt like Roberto always stopped.
He was always the guy who was sent to the community outreach events and he always did it with enthusiasm. I remember once during the 2002-2003 season, he was sent to a roller hockey tournament at Weston Regional Park that I was playing in. It was brutally hot. Most other people would have done their quick 15 minute visit and got the heck out of there back into the shade. Not Luongo. He stuck around at this plastic table set up in the center of the 4 rinks and signed autographs for every kid who asked for one. When his table wasn’t busy, he was standing against the boards watching.
I still remember having Roberto Luongo stand behind me watching me play the same position he did. He never said anything, but it was still really cool having a NHL goalie watch you play. I got a shut out in that game. It was my 4th of the weekend. At that point in the season Luongo had only 3. After the game, I went up to his table to get my autograph. As he was signing my hat, a young me was feeling myself and bragged that I had more shutouts that weekend then he had all season. He told me to talk to him after the season and we will compare. He finished that year with 6. Though in my defense ,I had my 5 games to set my number and he had 65. Not really fair, but you win this round Luongo. I’m sure there are plenty of other hockey players in my age range that have similar stories because Luongo seemed to always be around.
Luongo set up roots in South Florida. He met his wife in Coral Springs. He started hanging out all the time at the Pizza restaurant her family owned. Despite all the chaos and turmoil that was the 2000s Florida Panthers, he made South Florida his home. I still can’t believe how many shots he was subjected to during those years. Those teams were so bad.
A year or two later, I got the best Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten. I received a KOHO Pink Panther Luongo helmet. This wasn’t one of those cheap replica’s that are only used for autographs. This was a real one with all the safety certifications for use.
I loved that helmet. Getting to wear the same helmet as the goalie of your favorite team, yea, that was really cool. But, that was the jinx. I got that helmet during the lost lockout season of 2014-2015. I should have known. The next year was another of disappointment for the Panthers. The off-season signings of vets with Stanley Cup experience didn’t quite pan out and the Panthers season ended again without making the playoffs I still remember to this day being at the jersey off our back ceremony. Steve Goldstein was doing his best to put a positive spin on another disappointing season. The last person to pass on his jersey to a lucky fan. I think Goldie’s exact words were “And now Roberto Luongo, WHO WILL BE BACK NEXT SEASON!!!!!” The crowd roared, but then reality immediately started to set in. Getting Luongo back was not going to be easy.
The off-season was tense just like this one has been. We waited with baited breath for news of an extension. I’d be sitting in front of my computer during lazy summer days smashing F5 on Herald.com waiting to see if George Richards had an update. Both sides said all the right things. Former head coach now GM Mike Keenan kept saying how diligently they were working on an extension and how certain they were that it would get done.
Then seemingly out of nowhere a few days before the 2006 NHL Draft, Luongo was gone. Traded to Vancouver in what was then the worst trade in team history. Luongo was on his way to Vancouver in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld, and Bryan Allen. It was a complete blindside. Then the spin started. I remember being at a season ticket holder event at the arena a couple weeks later. On the jumbo-tron were highlights of Bertuzzi scoring goals, Auld making highlight reel saves, and Allen dishing out bone crushing hits on repeat. I don’t think they showed a single highlight from the actual Panthers team at that event. Every Panthers rep I talked to had a different line trashing Luongo. “We had a deal, then he came back asking for more money. He demanded that we hire a specific person as his goalie coach. He demanded that Jamie McLennan be re-signed as his goalie coach, so we sent him as far away from here as possible.”
Sadly, I bought it. Maybe it was because I was 17 and devastated that Luongo was gone, or maybe I was just that much of a homer that I wanted to believe the team knew what it was doing. They didn’t. Bertuzzi lasted 7 games with the Panthers, Auld was nothing more then an average backup goalie, and Bryan Allen was your typical stay at home, bottom pairing defenseman. The Panthers fell further into obscurity while Roberto Luongo rocketed to the playoffs with the Canucks. For that first year, all that remained of the Pink Panther was the pink tail on the back of his now white, blue, and green helmet. Even though I was bitter, I still wore my helmet. I guess part of me always knew it wasn’t over.
Fast forward 6 years and the relationship between Luongo and the Canucks is starting to sour. It seemed they were ready to replace Luongo with the younger Corey Schneider and naturally the Panthers were discussed as a landing spot for Luongo. I hated it. I was still bitter. Who needs Luongo? We had Jacob Markstrom, the best goalie prospect since Luongo. (Boy was younger me an idiot) But, nothing happened.
Two years later like a thunderbolt a day before the trade deadline on March 4th, 2014 it was announced that Roberto Luongo had been trade back to the Florida Panthers for Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias. It came out of absolutely nowhere. There wasn’t a whisper, a leak, anything that put people on guard this was coming. It was one of those baffling moves because the Panthers were in the process of finishing off a pretty terrible season so why should they acquire a now 35 year old Luongo? But then this tweet happened:
— Strombone (@strombone1) March 4, 2014
Followed shortly later by this one:
And on another note me and Tiny Tim are gonna rip it up the rest of the year!!!!!!! #dreamteam
— Strombone (@strombone1) March 5, 2014
And I was back. My feelings towards Luongo had already started to soften because of how hilarious he was on twitter, but now he was home. I knew I had to be at that first game back. HAD TO. I needed to know if that Pink Panther helmet was making a return. By the time the game came around 3 days later, I was as much of a Luongo stan as I was on the day I brazenly told him I had more shutouts than him all those years ago. The Pink Panther did return that night, and so did Luongo with a 25 save shut out in a 2-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres. It may have been a slap fight against the two worst teams in the NHL, but that was a magical night. The Pink Panther had returned and the love affair between Luongo and the Florida Panthers fan base was back like it never left.
Ever since then, there were some great moments. That 2015-2016 season was incredible. The 12 game win streak that fittingly ended in Vancouver was the best hockey run this team had seen since the 96 Cup run. Personally, I’ve gotten to have a few more moments with Luongo. While covering my first game with press credentials, I got lost on the way to the locker room. I made a wrong turn and ended up in the players personal dressing room, a place that is strictly off limits to the media. OOPS. The first person I see is Luongo and he gives me a slight frown and says, “Buddy, I don’t think you should be here.” Sorry Luo. First day jitters, but I really appreciated how Luo just pointed me in the right direction instead of giving me a hard time. I was in the wrong place and he could really have made my day difficult if he wanted.
There are a million memories we have when it comes to Roberto Luongo, but, I think the moment that Luongo will be remembered for has nothing to do with his play even though it took place on the ice. You all know what it is.
Here is the guy who came to the Panthers after a trade with the Islanders to get shelled night after night, only to have the organization he loved turn on him and trade him as far from home as possible. Now 18 years later, that boy is a man with white streaks in his beard once again professing his love for a community that was in unimaginable pain. Roberto Luongo is the epitome of class both on and off the ice.
Unfortunately with the way this season went, there really weren’t opportunities to spend time talking to Luongo about random stuff from the past like how the same 12 year old kid who told him he had more shutouts in a single weekend then he had so far in the season was now asking him about playing against Connor McDavid. Really going to regret missing that opportunity, but the point is still the same. Roberto Luongo has always been there as part of my adult hockey life. But now that’s over. He’s moving on to take his retirement talents to South Beach. From that kid who grew up watching you carry this organization on your back for years, Thank you for everything Roberto. Can’t wait for that jersey retirement ceremony that I am assuming will take place on January 9th, 2020.