At age 39, injuries have become a major concern for Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo, who has done enough already in his stellar career to be considered a sure Hall of Famer.
Former goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, who starred for the Panthers when this franchise was born a quarter-century ago, retired from the NHL at age 38 and knows more than most what it’s like to play between the pipes while approaching 40.
“It’s grueling from the physical part — you have to do a little bit more to maintain your body,” said Vanbiesbrouck, who was recently hired by USA Hockey as director of operations, involved with selecting players for the national team.
“You wish you had that mental part when you were (younger). Experience in this game is where it’s at. You can see the experienced players in the league — they are the best players still. They know where to go and what to do.”
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Luongo, the oldest goalie in the NHL this season and the third-oldest player overall, is still among those league stars, Vanbiesbrouck said.
“Roberto has been one of the best goalies in the game. In my view, he’s a Hall of Famer,” Vanbriesbouck said on Thursday night as the Panthers celebrated their inaugural team in pre-game ceremonies. “To have that guy still playing is great, and [the Panthers] need him to be successful.
“Having that experience around players is very useful — you can never have enough of that.”
Luongo, a six-time All-Star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist, is fourth on the NHL’s list of career wins by a goalie. His career save percentage is .920, and his goals-against average is 2.49.
Last season, he was better than his career averages with a .929 save percentage and a .247 GAA.
However, he only played 35 games last season and 40 the previous year.
This season, he stopped all 13 shots he faced against the explosive Tampa Bay Lightning but had to leave the game because of a freak knee injury as a teammate was pushed and fell onto his right knee.
The prognosis is that Luongo could miss about a month of action, putting intense pressure on backup James Reimer and third-stringer Michael Hutchinson.
Vanbiesbrouck roots for all goalies, but that’s especially true with Luongo.
“I identify with the older guys just because of the generational thing,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “But what we’re seeing in the game this year with the reduction of [goalie] padding, I’m a little curious. I think it’s unfortunate. We are seeing the scoring up, so I’m really feeling for the [goalies].”
Vanbiesbrouck, a 55-year-old native of Detroit, still holds the record for most wins by an American goalie (374), and he was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2007.
He was drafted by the New York Rangers, 72nd overall in 1981, and he made Madison Square Garden his office for parts of 11 seasons.
He was selected first in the 1993 expansion draft by the Panthers, and he was a three-time All-Star in Florida, leading his team to its only trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in ’96.
Vanbriesbouck played 57 games in that magical 1995-96 regular season, when Panthers fans rained rats onto the ice in celebratory fashion.
“Every year,” Vanbiesbrouck said of today’s Panthers, “I hope they make a run and the fans start throwing rats or whatever they want to throw.”
Vanbiesbrouck retired for the second and final time on May 24, 2002 after playing five games as the backup to Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils.
“I still had the fire to play a lot of games,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “But I don’t know if [the Devils] wanted me to play a lot of games. I watched Marty Brodeur do really well, and you realize [at that time] that there are a lot of guys better than you.”
As it relates to Luongo, Vanbiesbrouck said it can be a battle to stay elite both mentally and physically.
Vanbiesbrouck found it harder and harder to do the physical part as he got older.
“You have to get on and maintain a training regimen,” he said. “You want to play at 100 percent and not at 90 or 80.
“For myself, I saw it slipping where I played more games at 85 percent than I did at 100. And if you can’t give it your all, then you are starting to slip.”
Vanbiesbrouck was asked if he could still play goalie, even at his age, and, with a twinkle in his eyes, he said:
“I still think I have a good 30 minutes in me.”