The 2002 NHL YoungStars Game was a moment that Florida Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo will never forget.
Even now, as he prepares for Sunday’s All-Star Game in Columbus, Ohio, the veteran netminder can still easily recount the first time he convened with some of the NHL’s best players at the annual event and the mark it left on his storied career.
"It was exciting to take part in something like that," Luongo told FOXSportsFlorida.com. "I didn’t take part in main game, but just the whole festivities and all that kind of stuff was a nice experience, especially since it was in Los Angeles. It was fun.
"Just being a part of the whole All-Star experience with guys that have been in the NHL many years and the stars at the time. It was a great experience and I think it was good for me to be part of something like that."
After the initial elation of the invitation had subsided, Luongo admits that he didn’t know exactly what he was getting himself into. Replacing the Heroes of Hockey Old-Timers Game during the All-Star Weekend activities, the inaugural NHL YoungStars Game was something of an anomaly at the time.
The players were divided into two teams — one coached by Los Angeles Kings broadcaster Jim Fox and the other by former Los Angeles Kings head coach Barry Melrose — and consisted of eight forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender each.
Playing four-on-four hockey rather than the traditional five-on-five game, the duration of the first and second periods were 12 minutes, running time, while the third period was 11 minutes, running time, plus a final minute of stop time. Unlike the NHL’s current 18-minute break between periods, players were only given a four-minute break between periods.
"I knew it was going to be something fun and offensive," said Luongo. "Obviously you just try to have fun with that kind of stuff. You don’t want to take an All-Star Game too seriously and just want to enjoy it. You know you’re pretty much going to get lit up as a goaltender, so you don’t take it too seriously."
In the end, Team Melrose, which boasted several future superstars such as Pavel Datsyuk, Dany Heatley, Brad Richards, Ilya Kovalchuk and Luongo, would win by a final score of 13-7. Kovalchuk netted six goals while Luongo stopped 37 of 44 shots in victory.
Now 35-years-old and preparing to make his fourth All-Star Game appearance, Luongo couldn’t help but crack a smile while reflecting on where it all began. No longer the 22-year-old NHL neophyte he was back in 2002, the veteran goaltender admits that, given both his age as well as where he’s at in his career, this year’s contest will hold a special significance.
"For sure I think about it," said Luongo. "I’ve been around a long time so it’s nice to know that even though I’m a bit older now that I get a chance to participate in something like that (again). Obviously, you want to take advantage of something like that an enjoy it. I think the fact that I have two kids now, it’s going to fun to live the experience with them."
As time continues pass, however, Luongo’s memories of his 2002 debut will undoubtedly begin to fade.
Luckily, amid a vast assortment of masks, trophies, medals and other various memorabilia from his already illustrious career, Luongo says that he has held onto the jersey he wore during the event as a keepsake.
"I’ve got all the jerseys," said Luongo. "I try to collect them all and eventually they’ll all be up in my game room once I’m all settled in. I love hockey, so anytime I get a chance to participate in something like that, I always like to keep a jersey."
As for the widely panned 2015 NHL All-Star Jersey that he will don on Sunday, which sports an eye-popping "elite green" trim, well, Luongo says he’ll happily add it to the collection.
"I wasn’t too crazy about them, but they’re growing on me." he said with a laugh.