It was a happy time for Roberto Luongo when he was finally headed to his adopted home and a return to the Florida Panthers.
Yet when the blockbuster deal between Vancouver and Florida went down in 2014, some derided Luongo’s decision to leave the Canucks — a team he led to the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals — for the sad-sack Panthers.
“It means playing for a Florida Panthers franchise,” one columnist wrote, “that always seems to be clinging to the edge of the cliff.”
Wrote another: “Today is a rare victory for the Panthers.”
Luongo heard the dissenting voices of those who assumed he was headed south to “ride into the sunset” and knew the only way to prove them wrong was to start winning — with the Panthers.
“Anybody who knows me knows that is not in my nature,” said Luongo, who is in Nashville to play in his fifth All-Star Game and second in a row.
“What I’m all about, why I play the game is because I want to win. I want to have another crack at [the Stanley Cup]. One of the things that really upset me when this whole thing went down was people thought I was coming back to retire. That’s not me. I’m competitive, I want to win badly. I want to go for it again.”
Right now, things are looking up in Florida where the Panthers lead Tampa Bay and Detroit by five points atop the Atlantic Division.
Luongo is having fun with an easy-to-root-for Florida squad. The team has plenty of characters to go with the talent.
“People are talking about us,” Luongo said. “When we were on that streak, it opened up a lot of eyes. The only thing we can do is keep winning. That will bring more attention to us. But we kind of like to keep it on the down low, keep it quiet. We don’t want to wake too many teams up regarding our team.”
Luongo clearly needed to get out of Vancouver, but his long contract made things complicated.
So, too, did Luongo’s insistence that he be dealt back to the Panthers.
What I'm all about, why I play the game is because I want to win. I want to have another crack at [the Stanley Cup]. One of the things that really upset me when this whole thing went down was people thought I was coming back to retire. That's not me. I'm competitive, I want to win badly. I want to go for it again.
Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo
Luckily for him, general manager Dale Tallon was interested in bringing him back and had the blessing of owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu to make a deal near the trade deadline.
Luongo was scheduled to play the Arizona Coyotes that evening and spoke to the Vancouver media before the big trade happened.
“My desire to compete, my desire to win is as high as it has ever been,” Luongo said.
A few hours later, he was headed back to the Panthers.
Although Luongo’s first few months back in Florida were forgettable — save for the shutout he pitched in his return against Buffalo — the past two seasons have been pretty memorable.
Now 36, Luongo is playing as well as he ever has.
Last season, Luongo was considered Florida’s MVP as he kept the team in the playoff race until the final games.
This season, he is playing even better.
Over the course of the season, Luongo has won 22 games, which, with 33 left, has him on pace to top his career-high of 38 wins with Vancouver in his best season in 2010-11.
How good has Luongo been this season?
Not only is he a likely Vezina Trophy finalist, but he also has the lowest goals-against average (2.08) of his illustrious career with his highest save percentage (93).
Since Thanksgiving, the Panthers have gone 21-6-1; Luongo is 16-5-1 in those games.
During Florida’s impressive run, Luongo has three shutouts and has surrendered two goals or fewer in 17 of those games.
“I think we surprised a lot of teams, a lot of media guys around the league,” Jaromir Jagr said.
“I still don’t think a lot of people believe in us, and that doesn’t matter. As long as we believe in ourselves and [Luongo] is playing in net the way he has, we have good enough players to compete in every game.”
The Panthers have four representatives at this year’s All-Star Weekend, most in franchise history.
Through his popular Twitter account, Luongo will make sure everyone knows the Panthers are in town.
Like last year, when he tweeted out amusing thoughts from the bench, Luongo expects to make great use of social media again this year.
In Sunday’s 3-on-3 All-Star tournament — which will last at least one period — Luongo expects to play at least 10 minutes, with Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop playing the other half.
That gives Luongo plenty of time to tweet.
On Saturday, he sent out a tweet directed to Jagr of a Life Alert pager, writing “just picked up a little something for the 3-on-3 tomorrow. Hope you wear it.”
Expect more of the same from Luongo as weekend continues.
Luongo said he didn’t get any backlash from the league last season, so he will keep his Twitter machine going.
“I’m sure I’ll be able to fire off a few,” said Luongo, whose Twitter handle is @strombone1 and as of Saturday afternoon, had close to 608,000 followers.
“I had fun with it last year, and if a couple of funny ones come to me, I’ll fire something off.”
When/where: 5 p.m.; Bridgestone Arena, Nashville.
Florida Panthers participating: Atlantic Division captain Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Aaron Ekblad; coach Gerard Gallant.
Format: This year, the All-Star Game is a tournament of sorts with the NHL’s four divisions (Atlantic, Metropolitan, Central, Pacific) split up.
The Atlantic and Metropolitan will play a 20-minute 3-on-3 session. The winner of that will face the winner of the Central-Pacific period with the winner of the third and final championship period splitting a $1 million prize pool.