Roberto Luongo was awakened in his Arizona hotel room by the buzzing of his phone. Odd, since it typically was set to silent when he took his pre-game nap.
"I didn’t expect that the trade was done," Luongo said recently from South Florida. "It kind of took me by surprise."
It’s been almost two years since the Canucks traded Luongo back to the Panthers, but he has not quietly faded away since moving south as some may have predicted.
The soon-to-be 37-year-old is backstopping the Atlantic Division-leading Florida Panthers and is ranked in the top-10 in wins, save percentage and shutouts.
"If anything that’s one of the things that upset me the most is when people were talking about me just coming here and as they say ‘ride into the sunset,"’ Luongo said. "That’s not me. That’s not the type of person I am. I’m a competitor. I want to win at anything I do. That’s just the way I am, the way I’m built."
He continues to race up the all-time ranks, too, recently passing Tony Esposito for seventh with 425 career wins. He’s just 12 wins shy of matching Jacques Plante for the sixth spot.
His career has rebounded triumphantly from a Vancouver experience that seemed to sink lower and lower, capped by frustrations with a long-term contract that made him difficult to trade ("My contract sucks," he once told reporters) and an apparent snub in the 2014 Heritage Classic at B.C. Place Stadium when he was benched in favour of Eddie Lack.
"Obviously the main thing is I just felt that mentally I needed a fresh start somewhere else, I think, when all that happened," Luongo said.
Luongo sees a different culture around the Panthers dressing room in his second go-around with the club. A Panther for five seasons in the early 2000s, Luongo believes the group now expects to win, following up those expectations with a successful on-ice product this season.
Florida leads the Atlantic division with 72 points, on track to make the post-season for just the fourth time since 1996, when the club lost to Colorado in the Stanley Cup final.
Luongo brings valuable playoff experience to Florida, having backstopped Vancouver to the 2011 Cup final. The Canucks lost to Boston in seven games, and Luongo is eager for another chance at a title.
"I just want to win to be honest with you. I want to have another crack at it," Luongo said. "I think I obviously still have a sour taste in my mouth with the way things ended in the playoffs the year I went to the final and I just want to have another chance at it. The fact that we’re in the mix this year is exciting for me and for the guys in the locker room. It’s just something we’re looking forward to."
He holds no "grudges" for any ill-will he suffered in Vancouver.
"I don’t want any distractions to be in my mind, I just want to play the game because I love it and because I want to win," Luongo said.
Dale Tallon, the Panthers general manager, wanted a rock in goal to support his growing mix of talent when he traded for Luongo and the remnants of his 12-year contract in the spring of 2014. The former No. 1 overall pick has delivered this season with a .939 even-strength save percentage, tied with Henrik Lundqvist for the third-best in the league.
Tallon describes the process of acquiring Luongo as long. He thought he had a deal more than a year earlier, only to see it fall apart.
Luongo was then passed over the Heritage Classic, which put the prospect of a trade "back on our plate in a hurry".
Tallon has been especially impressed by Luongo’s drive to win. He credits him with energizing a young Panthers group.
"For years, a lot of guys have come to Florida just to retire and really not put the effort in," Tallon said from Florida. "But here’s a guy that really wanted to be back here and wanted to play here and that kind of made it easy down the road for us to say ‘Hey, they mean business down here."’