Perhaps it’s because he didn’t play his career with the sexiest teams in the NHL, or maybe it’s because the league still struggles for its rightful share of the spotlight, but it’s a shame the retirement of Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo didn’t get a bit more buzz.
He was one of the greatest netminders in league history, a guaranteed first-ballot Hall of Famer. But his decision to lay down the pads was made quietly, a release on the team’s website after a magnificent 19-year career.
“He is a first-ballot Hall of Famer without a doubt,” said John Vanbiesbrouck, the Panthers goalie who led them to their only Stanley Cup Final in 1996.
“It’s not just about the Cup or winning medals, but look at his longevity. Look at what he did. Every team in the league would want to have Roberto Luongo in goal for them.’’
Luongo gave no indication that he was planning to retire and had three years remaining on his deal. By retiring Luongo forfeits what remained to be paid, a total of $3.6 million.
“Thinking about getting onto the ice in late July, for the first time in my career, I wasn’t excited about it. That was the sign for me. It’s not that I don’t love playing hockey anymore, but I had to listen to my body. I’m at the point where my body was telling me it just needed a rest. It didn’t really want to get going,” Luongo said.
Luongo played 1,044 games for the New York Islanders, Panthers and Vancouver Canucks with a record of 489-392-124 with a .919 save percentage and sterling 2.52 goals-against average.
He ends his career third in wins and second in games played, shots faced and saves made in this history of the NHL.
If there is something missing from his resume it’s a Stanley Cup championship; the teams he played for were mostly mid-level or worse. The closest he came was with Vancouver in 2011 in a series against the Boston Bruins that went seven games.
But he won a pair of Olympic gold medals (2010, 2014) for Canada and was a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist, emblematic as the best goalie in the league.
He was a prodigy at the start of his career, the fourth overall pick by the Islanders in 1997, where he played until 2000 when he was originally dealt to Florida. He played there until 2006 when the Panthers traded him to the Canucks. It was there he signed his big deal, a 12-year, $64 million monstrosity he later regretted because of the financial pressure it put on the organization.
He returned to the Panthers in 2014 when his relationship with Canucks coach John Tortorella went south. They were the ones willing to pay Luongo. And although the player and club didn’t pair up for championships, he enjoyed returning to a place he will now make his permanent home.
The problem was last season. It might have been the worst of his career with a 3.12 goals against. The Panthers will have a new coach this season, Joel Quenneville, and they took a hotshot young goalie, Spencer Knight, 13th overall in the 2019 draft.
“I love the game so much, but the commitment I required to prepare, to keep my body ready, has become overwhelming,” Luongo wrote. “Since I had my hip surgery a couple of years ago, I’ve been showing up two hours before every practice and three hours before every game to work out my hip.
“Even at night, whether it was the night before a game or even a night off, there I was rolling out, doing strengthening exercises. My entire life revolved around recovery, strengthening and making sure I was ready to go the next day.
“I was willing to make that sacrifice because I love the game, I love being part of it, being in the action and competing with my teammates.”
What made Luongo special to the Panthers was he thoroughly seemed to enjoy playing in Florida, something that could not be said about many of his former teammates.
“His career really started with the Panthers and he wanted to come back. We were all excited when we heard he was coming back to the team,” Florida’s Jonathan Huberdeau told The Athletic.
“He was part of the Florida culture, and it was great to be able to play with a guy like that. He is going to be missed for sure, not only on the ice but off of it as well. You always knew he was going to give you 100 percent and then play cards with you.”
“It is never easy to see a teammate leave or retire, and he deserves to go out the way he wants. I’m sure he would love to play for a few more years because he loves this sport, but I know all the injuries didn’t make things easy on him the past few years. When you’re older, it gets harder and harder to keep coming back. He battled through. But at some point, you get sick of rehabbing and not being able to play. He deserved better, but it just happened.”