VANCOUVER – The drive to compete and win still burns inside Robert Luongo because if it didn’t, he said Tuesday, he wouldn’t be here.
That fire is significant. That fire has brought Luongo back, two months before his 39th birthday, from a groin injury serious enough that it had the potential to end the goalie’s National Hockey League career when he crumpled during a Dec. 4 game against the New York Islanders.
He had been through the same injury before, of course. But that was when he was 28, not 38, and Luongo conceded after practising with the Florida Panthers for a possible return to the lineup Wednesday against the Canucks that those 10 years make a difference.
Time always does.
“Of course, it’s easier to bounce back (when you’re younger) and you don’t think about things as much as you do when you’re 38,” Luongo told reporters. “When you’re a bit older, you think about different scenarios in your mind. At the time of the injury, I wasn’t quite sure how it was going to play out.
“I don’t know if it’s because I’m realizing it’s towards the end, (but) I want to enjoy it as much as I can for as long as I can. You view things a little bit different the older you get and the more wisdom you get. All your little bumps and bruises along the way, you learn from them and you learn how to deal with them. You become a stronger person.”
One of the best goalies of his generation, Luongo has had to deal with a lot of wounds — to his psyche as well as his body.
His time in Vancouver ended after one of the strangest and most compelling trade missions in NHL history, as former Canucks general manager Mike Gillis took nearly two years to deal Luongo and the US$64-million contract that the goaltender famously said “sucked.”
Luongo was vilified for imploding and losing the 2011 Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins. But by the time he was traded back to Florida three years later, his humility and honesty had made him beloved again on the West Coast.
And that 2011 low point in Luongo’s career came only a little more than a year after his greatest achievement: a gold medal with Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics at home.
“I’ve been watching it on TV and hockey hasn’t even started yet,” Luongo said of the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. “It’s definitely something I’m going to miss being part of it.”
Yes, Luongo has endured a lot of turns in his career, which probably helped him overcome this latest injury. He said he’d love to play Wednesday, when he could be facing old friends Daniel and Henrik Sedin for the last time, but won’t rush his return if it jeopardizes the Panthers’ chances of winning.
“They’re great ambassadors for the game and for the city,” Luongo said of the Sedins. “Besides that, they’re really two great guys and great people. It’s going to be sad when they’re not around anymore. I’m just glad maybe I’ll be able to outplay them.”
If he doesn’t play against the Canucks, Luongo should be in net Saturday against the Calgary Flames. Chances are he will outplay the Sedins.
In nine starts before he tore his groin, Luongo played some of the best hockey of his career, posting a .943 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average and building a Vezina-worthy campaign. His .928 save rate over 15 games this season is Luongo’s best since his Stanley Cup final year with the Canucks.
That 12-year contract that Luongo briefly hated is in Season 8, and next year his salary drops to $3.38 million from $6.71 million. Ironically, the nearer he comes to finishing his contract, the more punitive it will be to the Canucks, who eventually will have to take $8.5 million out of their salary cap – the difference between Luongo’s salary and his cap hit during the first 3¾ years of the deal in Vancouver – if the goaltender retires early.
The financial penance demanded by commissioner Gary Bettman, who in 2012 brought in the cap-recapture clause to punish teams that had signed players to perfectly legal long-term contracts with disposable final years, is divided by the number of seasons remaining if a player retires.
If Luongo retires this summer, the Canucks would lose $2.13 million from their salary cap for four seasons. If Luongo retires before his final season, 2021-22, when the goalie will be 42 and due a salary of only $1 million, the full $8.5 million will be charged against Vancouver’s cap.
It doesn’t sound like Luongo is retiring this summer.
“This year, I think we’re just getting back a little bit to where we were a couple of years ago, but there’s still some work to be done,” Luongo said of the Panthers, whose hockey-ops department was dysfunctional last year when the team plummeted 22 points in the standings. “I think the core group of guys that we have is exceptional. They’re young and they’re going to be good for a long time. I want to be part of that as long as I can.
“We’ll see where things go. Obviously, I’d love to play as long as I could, and I still feel that when I am playing, I can play at a high level, and that’s what’s important to me. As long as I can remain healthy, I’d love to keep playing.”