How rocky ending with Canucks made Luongo ‘a better person’

Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo acknowledges the crowd as he is recognized for playing in his 1,000th career NHL hockey game. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

SUNRISE, FLA. – His worst times in professional hockey helped extend one of the greatest careers in goaltending history because Roberto Luongo’s ordeal with the Vancouver Canucks made him a better person.

As the Florida Panthers celebrate Luongo’s 1,000th National Hockey League game before tonight’s contest against the Canucks, Luongo acknowledges the personal transformation he underwent at the tumultuous end of his time in Vancouver has helped him keep playing.

He is just the third NHL goalie to reach 1,000 games – he did so last April 5 – is fourth all-time with 471 wins and, as he told reporters Saturday, Luongo wants to finish the 12-year, $64-million contract he signed with the Canucks in 2010. Yes, the one he infamously said "sucks."

"Listen, I went through a lot," Luongo said of his eight seasons in Vancouver. "A lot of ups, a lot of downs there. I think it made me a better person. It made me grow more mature, understand things a little bit better and how things work. How to handle things, especially when things are not so easy. That’s huge, especially moving forward in life.

"That was a huge growing moment for myself. It was not an easy spot and I regret the way I handled certain things. And if I could do it over again, I would do it differently and not worry so much about the outside stuff."

Luongo was vilified for losing the 2011 Stanley Cup final when the Canucks were blown out in Games 6 and 7 by the Boston Bruins after he questioned Tim Thomas’ netminding style and wondered why he was getting no love from an opponent after "pumping his tires."

One season later, Luongo, just two years into that 12-year contract, lost his starting job in the playoffs to Cory Schneider. He requested a trade, which began a two-year saga in which Luongo discovered he had little market value at his salary. Humbled and despondent after the 2013 trade deadline passed without a deal, Luongo declared: "My contract sucks. I’d scrap it if I could right now."

From the pinnacle of Canada’s Olympic gold-medal win in Vancouver in 2010, Luongo’s descent was long and painful.

When he was finally traded back to Florida on March 4, 2014, Luongo was a changed man. It made him a better goalie and he reignited his career with the Panthers at an age when most other players had retired.

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To survive in the NHL for two decades – "A lot of pizza and pasta helps out," he joked — Luongo had to transform himself on the ice, too, constantly refining and updating his style at one of the most technical positions in all of team sports.

"I was not one of those guys that was set in his ways and the way I played was the way I was going to stay," Luongo said this morning. "I was always open-minded to trying out new things and what could help me improve my game and stay ahead of the curve. I think that’s one of the keys of my success, that I’ve been open-minded to learning and trying new things and adapting to an evolving position."

Amid the Panthers’ celebration of Luongo, there is an uneasiness about the 39-year-old’s future.

For a third straight season, Luongo is dealing with a significant injury, a sprained right knee that was hurt last week in Florida’s season-opener when teammate Frank Vatrano fell on his leg.

Luongo is supposed to miss only 2-4 weeks. But he sees his injuries mounting and wonders if they are connected to age and the major hip surgery he had 2½ years ago.

Complications from that reconstruction caused Luongo to skip the final six weeks of the 2016-17 season. Last year, he missed two months due to a groin injury, and his 35 games played were Luongo’s fewest appearances in a full season since he entered the NHL with the New York Islanders in 1999.

"I’m not sure what to make of it, to be honest with you," Luongo said. "I’ve had guys fall on me all the time. I don’t know if it was freaky… or if it’s related to all the other stuff. For now, I chalk it up to freaky so I can have peace of mind and just keep going.

"Ten years ago, if a guy had fallen on me the same way, would the hip have given me more leeway to absorb the hit? I don’t know. These are the things you think about when you’re hurt every five minutes."

Luongo needs 28 more games to surpass Patrick Roy’s 1,029 as an NHL goalie. Marty Brodeur played 1,266 and appears to be uncatchable. Only Brodeur (691 wins), Roy (551) and Ed Belfour (484) have won more games than Luongo, who is 471-376-119 with an astonishing career save percentage of .920.

Unlike the others, Luongo has never won a Stanley Cup.

"To be honest with you, I just want to be back in the playoffs," Luongo said. "That’s what I want to play for right now. The records are nice, but I just want to be in the playoffs. That’s why I play. I think this group is going to get there; I just want to make sure I’m part of it when they do."

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