CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) - Roberto Luongo has an arena named after him. He has made roughly $100 million in career earnings, knows he is headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, ranks among the sport’s all-time leaders in virtually every goaltending category. And in a true testament to Luongo’s popularity, the Twitter account of his alter ego even has close to a million followers.
His legacy was secure long ago.
He doesn’t need to play anymore.
Yet here he is, regularly arriving at the Florida Panthers’ training facility even before coach Bob Boughner on most mornings, spending more time getting ready for his daily workout than most people do on their actual workouts, not partaking in any hobbies during the season because he wants nothing to take away from his focus, still seeking any tiny way to make himself just a little better in net. His save percentage, in a season when he turned 39, was higher than the one when he turned 29. Or the one when he turned 19, for that matter.
Luongo is still driven, primarily for one reason - he’s never hoisted the Stanley Cup, the grail he wants most.
“He just prepares better than anybody I’ve ever seen at that position and that age,” Boughner said. “He’s just such a pro.”
The Panthers will gather Thursday for their preseason media day and some off-ice matters, then open training camp on Friday. They were one of the hottest teams in the NHL in the second half of last season, and wound up missing the playoffs by a point in another woebegone chapter for the franchise that hasn’t qualified for the postseason in 15 of the last 17 years and hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996.
Hope springs eternal, Luongo believes, and once again he’s arriving for the start of the season expecting to win the final game.
“Guys are maturing and understanding the game more and more every year,” Luongo said. “Hopefully we’re ready, right off the bat.”
This season presents a dichotomy of sorts: Florida is a team that thinks its talented young core - Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Matheson and Jonathan Huberdeau are all 25 or less - is just getting started. Luongo is a goalie who is nearing the proverbial finish. Yet even with James Reimer on the roster, and Reimer will play plenty, Luongo is the goalie they will rely upon from the outset on opening night.
“I just love the game,” Luongo said. “I feel that I enjoy it more now than when I was a little bit younger. I’m more mature, understand things a little bit better, more focused on enjoying my time and not so much focused on other things that maybe aren’t under my control, which I used to do earlier on in my career that I kind of regret now.”
He didn’t use the word Vancouver, because it was obvious. After his first stint in Florida ended in 2006 Luongo spent eight years with the Canucks, lost a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final with them - in Vancouver, no less - and eventually wound up getting traded back to the Panthers. He was miserable toward the end of his time in Vancouver, lost his starting job and the $64 million, 12-year contract he signed in 2009 was an easy target for critics.
In Florida, he’s happy.
“It took some bad things to happen for me to learn, but usually that’s how things work,” Luongo said. “You get back up, you learn from it and you get stronger. Feels like a really long time ago, but those were also some of the best years of my career. Everything happens for a reason. You learn and you move on.”
Luongo comes into this season with 471 wins, fourth-most in history, 13 away from matching No. 3 Ed Belfour. He has 27,326 saves - 1,602 away from matching Martin Brodeur for the most in NHL history. Back home in Canada, he has an arena where he used to play that now bears his name, just like Brodeur does. He’s also quick to point out that he’s among the NHL career loss leaders, with 376, 21 shy of tying Brodeur for the league record.
“Take that, Marty,” Luongo shouted.
That’s the self-deprecating humor that he’s needed to develop, and is often in full display on his Twitter account Strombone .
On there, he has asked the Stanley Cup who it was. He has called himself a dinosaur. When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and gave a ring to Steve Bartman - who achieved infamy in the 2003 playoffs by snaring a foul ball against the Florida Marlins - Luongo pointed out that he even trails Bartman in that category now.
“I just want to keep it light,” Luongo said. “Kind of a way for me to be myself.”
Light off the ice, all business on the ice.
He was healthy this offseason, a change from the last couple years, and that allowed him to spend much more time honing and much less time rehabbing. He took about a week or two off after last season, forced himself to watch some of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and believes he’s ready for the grind that awaits.
The Cup is out there. And he’s running out of time to get his fingerprints on the chalice.
“Lu’s done everything but win the Cup,” Boughner said. “He knows this is a big year for this team. And Lu, when he’s at the top of his game, he’s still a top-10 goalie in this league.”
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