SUNRISE Fla. — Admittedly in ”shock” and ”disbelief” upon returning to the Florida Panthers, Roberto Luongo was asked Wednesday if he saw himself as a mentor to the team’s younger players this second time around.
”That’s part of it,” said Luongo, who continued to speak as he turned his head to the left and general manner Dale Tallon.
”I don’t know if there’s any young goalies in the organization coming up or not . . .”
”You’re it, baby,” Tallon said with a smile.
Luongo spoke at a late-afternoon press conference at the BB&T Center announcing his return to the Panthers, for whom he played from 2000-06. He was acquired from Vancouver with forward Steven Anthony on Tuesday in exchange for forward Shawn Matthias and goalie Jacob Markstrom.
”We’re excited about this,” said Tallon, who tried to acquire Luongo a year earlier only to see a deal fall through. ”This is the beginning of many solid moves moving our franchise in the right direction.”
Despite having wished for a return to the Panthers in recent years, and with Wednesday’s NHL trade deadline just hours away, Luongo retired to take his usual pregame nap before Vancouver’s game at Phoenix on Tuesday night.
The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist was interrupted by a phone call from Canucks general manager Mike Gillis.
”He just told me straight out, ‘We just traded you to Florida,’ ” said Luongo, who landed in South Florida at around 12:30 a.m. ”It happened quick. I didn’t really know what to say. I was just getting ready for the game, which I was supposed to start.
”It caught me off guard, for sure. I’ve been waiting for a trade for a long time, and just when I stopped worrying about one, it happened. That’s usually how it works.”
The 34-year-old Montreal native calls Parkland, Fla., home now and plans to do so after he retires. After coming up with the New York Islanders, he played five seasons with the Panthers before being dealt to Vancouver on June 23, 2006.
”Even though I was excited to be coming here, I did play in Vancouver for eight years and did play with a lot of those guys for that time,” he said. ”I’ve never been traded during a season before, so it was tough for me to leave something I was so invested in at a drop of the hat like that.”
Still, Luongo said his Florida homecoming didn’t represent semi-retirement.
”Obviously, a lot of people think I want to come here and ride into the sunset, but that’s not what it’s all about,” said the owner of a 367-305-92 record and 2.51 goals-against average. ”I’m here to win.
”And I think with new ownership and the promises they made, I think it’s a good start, and hopefully we can bring some guys in and help the young guys move along and then be a contender.”
Signed through 2021-22, Luongo said the trade increased his determination to play, and play well, through the life of his contract. He admitted two things could affect that.
”My desire to win, which is probably at it’s highest right now, which is good,” he said, ”and obviously, my body, how long it’s going to hold up.
”I’d love to play into my 40s.”
For a few hours, it appeared Luongo might have to split time with Tim Thomas. But the veteran goalie was traded to the Dallas Stars for backup Dan Ellis just before the deadline.
”That wouldn’t have been a problem,” Luongo said of co-existing with Thomas. ”I’m a pro and I know Timmy’s a pro. It wouldn’t have been a problem.”
Now, Luongo clearly is Florida’s on- and off-ice leader.
”Roberto’s a class act, on and off the ice . . . not only a great athlete but a great person and a lot of class. And that’s what we want,” Tallon said. ”We want to bring our young guys along and show them by example.
”This is the beginning of something special for this Florida Panthers organization, having Roberto back here in the fold and back here in Florida where he belongs.”
Asked for his fondest memories as a Panther, Luongo mentioned a game against Detroit on Feb. 27, 2002 when he set a team-record with 57 saves in a 3-2 overtime loss.
”When the announcer announced (the record) during the game, (Brett Hull) scored and the game was over,” Luongo said.
Having led Vancouver to the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals — losing to Thomas’ Boston Bruins — Luongo said he had not lost hope of seeing his name on hockey’s holy grail.
”I definitely still want to compete at a high level and be on a winning team,” he said, ”and try to get into the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup.”