By Ryan Dixon in Coral Springs, Fla.
By Ryan Dixon in Coral Springs, Fla.
Despite ups and downs, Roberto Luongo's been happiest on the ice in Florida. And there's a lot more than hockey tying the future Hall of Famer to Parkland and its people.

If your foursome trailed Roberto Luongo’s at the first tee box and you saw a lean, six-foot-three man jab his tee into the grass and gaze out onto the fairway, you’d probably assume the ball was in for a ride. “For a big guy, you’d think he’d hit it a little further,” says Derek MacKenzie, gently poking a club into his longtime teammate’s ribs.

The first stroke is a risk-reward consideration, surely, and Luongo tends to opt for the long play over the long drive. It’s an approach he applies in a number of contexts. Armed with the experience of having competed at the World Series of Poker, Luongo is the calculating one at the back of the team plane, tossing the numbers in his head as the cards get flipped. “He really likes to play the high odds, so he only goes in with [the best hands],” says friend and former teammate Alex Burrows, recalling with great delight the occasions in which somebody dealt a dog’s breakfast bluffed their way past Luongo. “He would get really, really upset because he knew it was a dumb play and he couldn’t understand why guys were making dumb plays instead of playing by the odds. Those were probably some of the best moments, when he was fuming at the poker table.”

In a different time, it was pretty easy to imagine Luongo in a state of irritation. But five years ago, at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline, the goaltender returned to the welcome familiarity of his South Florida hockey home. While good health has proven elusive and expectations of his potential-packed team have gone mostly unmet, Luongo — who starred for Canada 20 years ago at the World Junior Championship, won two Olympic golds as a grownup and has seen it all in an expansive career — could not be stopping pucks in a place that means more to him. What lies ahead professionally, though, is hard to know. In less than two months, he’ll turn 40 years old and his team is dragging through a difficult season. But as the Montreal native told an arena full of people — speaking in the aftermath of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that shattered his community one year ago — no matter what happens next, Parkland will be home forever.

In his 19th season, Luongo is second all-time in goalie games played, and will soon be third in wins and first in losses.

Just as they knew of his comfort in laying up and distaste for reckless card play, Luongo’s pals were aware he was funny long before the rest of us. Burrows lived in the same building as Luongo when the pair were Vancouver Canucks and was often chuckling at what he describes as his teammate’s intelligent sense of humour. The perception around Luongo before his @strombone1 Twitter account gained a profile earlier this decade was that he might bruise too easily to operate in the hysteria that engulfs the blue paint in Canada. If shots didn’t always stick to him, criticism — fair and otherwise —seemed to. To this day, Luongo won’t reveal the full story behind the Strombone name — it’s an inside joke with some of his oldest friends — and he breaks into a small grin when he points out that, technically, the account isn’t verified, so we can’t say for sure he’s the man behind the curtain.

Setting all playful pretense aside, Luongo acknowledges the trickle of self-effacing comments do reveal another dimension of his personality. “When I was in Vancouver and you have a microphone in your face every day and you want to make sure you said the right thing, sometimes you’re not really yourself,” he says. “I think [the Twitter account] was a way for me to express the way I really am, just to show I don’t take myself too seriously and I like to have fun and be loose.”

Luongo certainly appeared relaxed on the cusp of this season, wearing flip-flops and team-branded shorts while sitting and chatting at the Panthers practice facility. Unfortunately, all the positivity the Cats had heading into October — a scorching finish to last season had them circled by many as real risers in the East — dissolved when, in the second period of their season-opener, forward Frank Vatrano fell on his own goalie, leaving Luongo with a bad-luck knee injury that sidelined him for a month. Florida won twice in its first 10 outings and have been playing catchup ever since.

With another spring devoid of playoff hockey on the horizon, speculation has kicked up that Florida is set to make bold moves in the summer — or maybe even before the Feb. 25 trade deadline — with two-time Vezina Trophy winner and UFA-to-be Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus a suspected target. Kicking tires on any top-notch goalie would make sense given Luongo’s age and the fact he’s been waylaid by hip problems in the two seasons prior to this one. Still, the veteran’s performance during a period in life when normal people are just starting to feel the first pangs of mid-life crises is remarkable. From March 7, 2014 — the first game of his second Panthers tenure — through the end of last year, Luongo’s .922 save percentage is bested only by Anaheim’s John Gibson and Chicago’s Corey Crawford (both at .923) among tenders who’ve played at least 150 games.

“As long as I can play at a high level, I’d love to keep playing.”

Skepticism about his ability to perform at 40 and beyond is natural, but it’s worth pointing out a couple things. Luongo has learned the hard way that he has to constantly manage his hip, even when it feels OK. And while recent quadragenarian crease precedent isn’t entirely encouraging, Dominik Hasek did have the second-best save percentage in the NHL with a .925 mark at age 41 in 2005–06 and ranked 13th the next year at .913. Luongo’s contract runs through 2021–22 and his cap hit is a pretty palatable $4.53 million thanks to $800,000 in retained salary by Vancouver. The league may be stocked with more dead-eye shooters than ever, but Luongo has adapted with the times, too, incorporating the reverse-VH technique in order to form a tighter seal with the goal posts and cut down on the bad-angle goals that used to drive him nuts. Very little has gone right in Florida this season and Luongo’s numbers are no exception, with a save percentage that’s dipped below .900. That said, if Luongo can rediscover his recent form, expect him to keep staring down this new generation of danglers. “As long as I can play at a high level, I’d love to keep playing,” he says.

Luongo holds every major regular-season record for the Panthers, but has appeared in just six playoff games through 10 full Florida seasons.

This much we can tell you about the turn-of-the-century New York Islanders: they weren’t afraid to take big swings. As such, Luongo was caught off-guard the first time he was dealt to Florida at the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, following his rookie season in New York. “Earlier that morning, they had traded [fellow goalie] Kevin Weekes away, so I thought they were giving me a chance to be the starter,” he recalls. “But a couple hours later, when they called me — which I thought was to tell me I was going to be the starter — they told me that I got traded to Florida.”

Luongo was shipped out because Isles GM Mike Milbury was hitching his wagon to goalie Rick DiPietro, whom he made the first selection in the 2000 draft three years after the team had picked Luongo fourth overall in 1997. Not long after ‘Lou’ landed in South Florida, a sports nut who owned a pizzeria in Coral Springs told a special customer, Cats captain Scott Mellanby, that he’d like to meet the fellow Italian who played goal for the team. Luongo became a regular at the spot and, initially, didn’t realize the young woman in a booth who always caught his eye was the owner’s daughter. Everyone is family now, and Roberto and Gina welcomed daughter Gabriella and son Gianni to the world during the Canucks chapter of their lives.

Luongo says the good memories from his seven-plus seasons out west dwarf the bad, the only real downers being the devastation of losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final on home ice to the Boston Bruins and the fact a disproportionate amount of blame for the Canucks’ ultimate shortcomings seemed to be laid at the pads of a goalie who was among the best performers at his position. “At the beginning, I didn’t know how to handle it,” Luongo says. “Maybe I wasn’t mature enough to take on the load of the criticism. It’s unfortunate that [it wasn’t until] the last two [or] three years of my time there [that] I really understood how things work and how to handle criticism, which is a key part of being an athlete.”

The writing may have been on the wall during Luongo’s trying final years in B.C., but the fact his name was on a 12-year contract, signed in 2010, also limited the team’s ability to move him, as did the no-trade clause contained in the deal. The family certainly contemplated the idea of returning full-time to South Florida, where they never stopped spending summers, but it didn’t seem destined to be. “I wasn’t expecting to come back here,” Luongo says. “We had kind of put an ‘X’ on that after the first few months of being on the trade block.”

As such, it was another sunny surprise when the opportunity arose. For all the pull of home, though, this was always about more than Luongo escaping the glare and getting a jump on his golden years. Part of the reason he agreed to the deal was because he saw the makings of a competitive club and, sure enough, in his second full season back with the Panthers, Florida claimed the 2015–16 Atlantic Division crown with 103 points. At age 36, Luongo finished fourth in voting for the Vezina Trophy that, somewhat incredibly, has never made its way to his mantel.

“I think you take things personally when it’s in your backyard.”

Hip surgery in the spring of 2016 had unintended lingering effects, but Luongo posted a .929 save percentage in the 35 games he managed to appear in last season. At this time one year ago, he was rejoining the Florida lineup just in time for a second-half push that saw the team claw within one point of the final playoff spot in the East.

Every hockey-related thing in Luongo’s life, however, was stripped of significance on Feb. 14, 2018 when Gina, calling from Parkland, reached him on the road in Vancouver to say there had been a shooting at Stoneman Douglas, located just down the street from where his own kids go to school. “I remember hearing my wife’s voice on the phone because she was in the parking lot and there were sirens and people screaming, helicopters, all kinds of stuff going on,” Luongo says.

Gianni, seven years old at the time, was in lockdown at his school. Gabriella, 10, just happened to have a doctor’s appointment that day. The notion of not being able to prevent your children from grave harm robs a parent of all ability to think rationally. Three times zones away thanks to his job, every second Luongo couldn’t be with his family felt like a dereliction of duty. “It was traumatic and I was a little bit upset I wasn’t there for them,” he says. “That’s the part that’s hard for me to digest, that I wasn’t there for them on that difficult day.”

Luongo made that same point when he addressed the BB&T Center crowd at the Panthers’ first home game after the shooting, something he had to re-assure Florida coach Bob Boughner he was OK to do. Holding the mic in full gear, Luongo swayed at times, like a player might during the national anthem. Nothing was scripted, he simply knew the framework of what he wanted to say. “I just want to start off by saying I live in Parkland,” Luongo began. “I’ve been living there for the past 12 years, my wife was born and raised in that area, my kids go to school in Parkland. When I’m done playing hockey, I want to spend the rest of my life in Parkland. I love that city.”

Luongo said his heart broke for the victims and their families, and assured them whatever support they required was there. He called the teachers who did all they could to save lives that day “heroes.” He told the surviving students who, in the days following the attack, spoke out against the senseless violence that they were an inspiration and provided hope for the future. He bent, but didn’t break. All the goalie armour in the world, though, couldn’t mask the agony inside.

“I think you take things personally when it’s in your backyard,” says MacKenzie, who has children close in age to Luongo’s. “It’s one thing to go home to a wife or kids or girlfriend, but when you have [extended] family and relatives scattered all around Parkland and South Florida, it runs a little deeper.”

The profound impact was something Luongo saw manifest in those closest to him. Both Gianni and Gabriella had trouble going to school the rest of that year, traumatized by a day no person, big or small, can be expected to fully reconcile. “It’s important to keep the dialogue open,” Luongo says. “We don’t know, sometimes, what’s going through their minds, but it all starts with the parents, making sure they’re talking. You don’t want your kid to suffer in silence, you want to make sure you’re there for them no matter what. That’s what we try to do in our house and I’m sure that a lot of parents in Parkland are doing the same.”

Luongo is going to be a Parkland parent for a long time yet and, hopefully, the routine hustle-bustle of family life can — in its own subtle way — help balm the grief. Gianni has hockey to get to; Gabriella is a dancer. The car rides could be an opportunity for a meaningful check in or simply a chance to drop what are surely some pretty good dad jokes. Leave it to Luongo to read the situation and always make sure there’s time for both.

Designed and edited by Evan Rosser

Photo Credits

Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images; Joel Auerbach/Getty Images; Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images.