When Roberto Luongo hit his pillow for his pregame nap Tuesday, he had no idea what was waiting once he awoke.
After a few years of trying to come back to the Florida Panthers, it became true. Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis called Luongo in the middle of his nap and told him not only would he not be starting for the Canucks later that night in Arizona, but he would be heading home to South Florida.
“I was getting ready to play; I didn’t have any idea something serious was going down,” Luongo said in a reintroductory news conference carried statewide on Fox Sports Florida from BB&T Center.
“There’s always rumors floating around, but I’ve been hearing them for a couple of years. You stop listening to them. I was ready to play. It happened quick and caught me off guard. To be honest, I’m still in a little bit of disbelief. It’ll be nice to practice with my new teammates and get some normalcy back.”
The deal for Luongo just prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline set a number of things in motion, including dismantling Florida’s goaltending tandem.
Starter Tim Thomas reluctantly waived his no-movement clause and was traded to Dallas. The Panthers got veteran goalie Dan Ellis in return, thereby sending backup Scott Clemmensen to Florida’s minor-league affiliate in San Antonio.
“We wanted a world-class goalie and a class act like Roberto,” general manager Dale Tallon said. “We’re excited about this. This is the beginning of many solid moves to move our franchise forward.”
Luongo, who played for the Panthers from 2000 to ’06, said his interest in rejoining Florida was rekindled as the team made a run to the playoffs in 2012. Luongo was feeling heat in Vancouver with Cory Schneider making a case to be the starter. Luongo eventually asked for a trade — with Florida being his main target.
“It really got me excited,” said Luongo, shipped out in 2006 after a series of events unfolded leading to contract talks stalling with then-owner Alan Cohen and GM Mike Keenan.
“I started thinking it would be great to come back and rejoin the team. It took a while, and there were some other teams involved along the way, but in the end I think when I least expected it, something happened. I’m excited about [the] situation moving forward.”
The Panthers couldn’t swing a deal for Luongo in 2012 or last summer when Tallon confirmed he and Gillis talked about it at the draft.
“A lot of people think I want to come here and ride into the sunset,” said Luongo, 34, who is signed through 2022. “I’m here to win, to bring this team back to the playoffs. I think with the ownership and the promises they’ve made, we can bring some new guys in and help the young guys along. We can be a contender.”
Rory Babich, named CEO of the team on Monday, said bringing Luongo back is a difference-maker for the franchise.
“To be able to acquire a talent like [Luongo] will be tremendously positive for our fans and our players,” Babich said. “Getting Roberto at the deadline converts the words we’ve been speaking into action. We really believe the players will get a lift. This is a tough end of the season where we’re at, but this is all good.”
With Luongo, the Panthers all but said goodbye to Thomas. On Tuesday, Thomas said he learned about the trade while on the bus heading to the TD Garden in Boston.
When asked if he would accept a trade to a contender, Thomas didn’t seem to know what to say. It was apparent he and Tallon talked about Thomas coming back next season. He had never really thought about leaving at the trade deadline.
On Wednesday morning, Thomas and Tallon broached the subject.
“I told him the truth, how it went down and what happened,” Tallon said. “That’s just the way it is. It’s strictly business. We have to win games, build a solid championship team here. It was a good conversation. I don’t blame him for being upset. This is the direction we’re going in.”
The Panthers’ organization seemingly thought Thomas would be around for a while as well. Sunday’s home game against Boston was scheduled to have 10,000 Thomas bobbleheads as the giveaway.
Babich said while the trinkets won’t be given out en masse, the team is working on a plan to get them to fans who want them.
“The timing is unfortunate,” Babich said. “Tim is popular here, and we [were] looking forward to honoring him with a bobblehead night. He was important to us.”
Although Luongo said he and Thomas could coexist — Thomas said the same thing Tuesday — it was obvious having two top-end goalies on the same team competing for playing time wasn’t going to work for long.
So when the Panthers skate onto the ice for Thursday’s practice in Coral Springs — just a few miles from Luongo’s home — there will be no question who Florida’s No. 1 netminder is.
As it was in 2006, it’s Luongo.
“You always feel you have something to prove; there’s always someone behind you ready to take your job,” said Luongo, who still holds the franchise goaltending records for games played, wins and shutouts.
“You have to have that desire to keep getting better and be the best. That, to me, is what it’s all about. You have to keep pushing. When I don’t have that, I’ll step aside.”