EDMONTON — Roberto Luongo is at the other end of the spectrum now. At the other end of a lot of spectrums, actually.
Where once he was the No. 1 goalie in a major Canadian market where fans and media fixate on netminders like no other, today he calls Sunrise, Fla., home, playing for the eighth or ninth most significant sports team in a state where hockey is somewhat less popular than in the lower mainland.
He shares the Panthers nets with a bonafide, career backup in Al Montoya — not an up-and-comer like Cory Schneider — on a team with a fabulous looking future. Unlike, as it appears at the moment, his former team.
Watch: Panthers vs. Canucks, Monday at 10 p.m. ET on Sportnset Pacific and Rogers Game Centre Live
And between the ears? While, there is a spectrum reversal there too, but we’ll let Luongo tell you about that.
“I don’t want to relate this to being in Vancouver or being in Florida. It’s about being in the right spot up here,” he says early in our interview, tapping his temple with his index finger. “It doesn’t matter what market I’m in. It’s a matter of how to handle different things. Not letting things get to me like they used to.”
Luongo is surely at peace now, having been pressure treated by the Canadian Olympic hockey experience, and that final, oh-so-close Stanley Cup run in 2011. Today he lives in relative anonymity at his family’s preferred address, wearing shorts and flip-flops into a dressing room that has been masterfully stocked with the right pieces by general manager and chief chemist Dale Tallon.
The Panthers have ample veteran leadership from people like Jaromir Jagr, Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell and Shawn Thornton, and a young core as good (and big) as any in the National Hockey League, led by Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad. And they’ve got goaltending, which means Florida has more than just a puncher’s chance to deliver Luongo the one thing that has eluded him in his 16 NHL seasons.
“I love that guy down there,” said Mitchell, nodding towards Luongo’s stall in the visiting dressing room at Rexall Place on a Sunday morning. “This is my sixth or seventh season with Lou, and I know how much he wants to win. It would mean the world to me to see that guy win.”
“That’s all I can ask for,” said Luongo, who turns 37 in April. “Last time around didn’t end on a great note. I just want another shot at it.”
That’s really what this whole Florida thing is for all of these veterans: one, last shot at building something special and seeing it through to the finish line. But even more so for Luongo.
Jagr has his two Cup rings from Pittsburgh. Mitchell won two in Los Angeles. Campbell won with the Blackhawks in 2010. Luongo has the Olympic gold medal for his neck, but during all the time spent settling matters between his ears his ring finger became overlooked.
“I did a lot of growing up in Van. Unfortunately, when I figured it out it was a little too late for me there,” Luongo said. “I just look at things differently now. I keep it in mind that I’m playing the game that I love, and I’m going to enjoy these moments. I don’t think about the stuff surrounding me that sometimes can become distractions.”
“No offence to Kirk McLean or Richard Brodeur in ’82, (Luongo) is the best goalie ever to lace ‘em up in Vancouver, by far,” said the Port McNeill, B.C., native Mitchell. “Personally I don’t think I would have put up with the bull**** that long, but that’s Roberto. On a personal level, he doesn’t like drama. He likes playing hockey, then going home and being a family man. When there’s drama like that …”
Mitchell believes Luongo was too willing to take the brunt of troubles in Vancouver that weren’t of his own making, like a team that couldn’t get past Chicago for a couple of years, then lost in the Final to Boston. Like a GM that foolishly made Luongo the Canucks captain, something many goalies would have refused. That brainchild of GM Mike Gillis left Luongo in a terrible position.
“Then they started to change his style of play,” Mitchell said. “He’s an Olympian. Now you’re going to change his style at this point in time? One of the best ever? Top 10 in wins all-time?
“There was a lot of bull**** at the end in Vancouver, and he was trying to appease people, instead maybe being a bit selfish,” Mitchell said. “Coming down here has been such a blessing. He’s just Roberto Luongo. He just does what always made him great.”
Monday night Luongo will get the start against the Canucks at Rogers Place. He’s entirely comfortable with his second return visit as a Panther, steeled against those outside factors that once got inside his head.
“It’s always fun to play against old teammates, in a building where you played eight years, and won a gold medal,” Luongo said. “The fans, we have that mutual respect. I’m looking forward to it.”
If he had it to do over again, with this Panthers team on the brink of being an annual Stanley Cup contender, Luongo likely wouldn’t change much.
I wonder if folks in Vancouver would say the same thing?