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Monday, August 8, 2022

Roberto Luongo Q&A: On being named to Hall of Fame alongside the Sedins and more

On Monday, Florida Panthers executive Roberto Luongo became a first-ballot Hockey Hall of Famer.

He’ll be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside his former Vancouver Canucks teammates Henrik and Daniel Sedin in November as part of the class of 2022.

When we tracked Luongo down on Monday afternoon, following a lengthy media conference call with the other inductees, he was still processing a fitting capstone to his remarkable career.

The people in his life were touched and emotional. For Luongo, however, it all still felt like a dream. He was most excited about entering the Hall of Fame alongside his friends Henrik and Daniel. The magnitude of the honour and its wider implications just hadn’t quite sunk in yet.

There’s something fitting and relatable about Luongo’s delayed reaction. This is a player, after all, who stood out among his peers largely due to the robotic, repetition of elite performance that he managed year over year during his NHL career.

Over a 14-year period from 2001 to 2015, for example, Luongo started at least 50 games on 13 occasions (usually more than 60). His save percentage never dipped below league average in any of those campaigns and only dipped below .915 twice.

He was the model of consistency. An elite goaltender that, like clockwork, put together the sort of performance in net that elevates an average team to a playoff team and a good team to a great one. Luongo did this year after year, repeating the feat as if it were no big deal.

Of course, it is a big deal. It isn’t easy to stop pucks shot by the most lethal offensive talents in the world at an elite rate every second day for nearly two decades. It’s natural, an inevitable consequence of the task at hand, that goaltending performance is subject to wild, variable swings.

Any veteran hockey fan can tell you that an elite starting goaltender one season might be unplayable the next. And a widely criticized goaltender that’s chased out of one city may rise in another, as a saviour, the very next season.

In the regular season, Luongo was immune to those sorts of swings. He was steady. A high-end puck stopper, year after year. To look at his career in totality — second-most saves all-time, third-most games played, fourth-most wins, ninth-best save percentage (minimum 200 games played) — is to be struck by the extent that it was machine-like.

The automatic nature of Luongo’s puck-stopping excellence, of course, never quite squared with the person that hockey fans got to know through TSN poetry readings, tire-pumping controversies and self-deprecating viral tweets.

Humorous and emotional, Luongo became an icon in his playing career — and a source of overwhelming controversy — in part because that style of play and uncanny efficiency was in such stark contrast with the real human being who once rawly announced — devastated that he hadn’t been traded ahead of the 2013 NHL trade deadline — that “his contract sucks.”

Although a Stanley Cup victory eluded Luongo as a player, he is the greatest goaltender in franchise history in Vancouver, a franchise icon in Florida, the starting goaltender for the Gold Medal-winning 2010 Canadian Olympic team and, above all else, one of the most consistent puck stoppers in NHL history.

On Monday, Luongo took some time out from processing his Hall of Fame induction to speak with The Athletic. Over the course of a wide-ranging conversation that has been edited for length and readability, Luongo touched on why it means so much to him to be inducted with the twins, his love for attacking hockey, playing cards on the plane with the 2011 Canucks and the credit due to his wife Gina.

How real does this feel and have you wrapped your head around it yet?

I don’t think I’ve quite wrapped my head around it yet.

The people around me are overjoyed and extremely emotional. And I’m happy, excited and honoured, but I feel like the whole big picture scope of things, I haven’t quite put my head around it yet.

I said it earlier, but the most exciting thing for me — and it’s what makes me more excited about the honour — is that I get to share the moment with Henrik and Daniel Sedin. That’s the best part of it for me for now, but I’m sure as it gets closer, it’ll feel even bigger.

One of the moments Canucks fans remember you most fondly for actually happened when you were in a Panthers jersey. When you were the goalie of record for Henrik Sedin’s 1,000th point, and after the goal, you hugged him. Obviously you still weren’t happy about it, you never like to be scored on …

That weak backhand move, I still can’t believe I fell for that!

Listen, even before the game, I knew it was going to happen. So when he scored I just thought “Ahh man, I knew it!”

Then after the celebration, he skated by, and I’ve never seen it in hockey, where a guy scores on you and you congratulate him. I just felt in that moment, and I didn’t plan on it, it just happened, but I went out there, gave him a tap on the pad, gave him a hug and just said “Hey, congrats man.”

I remember this because we were working together at the time, but as the twins’ career was coming to an end, you were tracking that story — “Would they or wouldn’t they retire” — so closely. I just remember walking through the locker room and you’d yell at me just like “What are you hearing?!”

And the night they played their last home game, and they get the OT winner, and you texted me. You were so excited, dropping Derek Jeter comps, that they’d gotten that send-off. What does that level of attention you paid to their careers say about the regard you have for them?

They’re two of my favourite teammates of all time, but also two of the best people I know.

It was weird because I was watching those final games of theirs, I was surprised they were still playing at such a high level. I kept thinking they could keep going. I just couldn’t believe that was the end for them, so I had a bit of disbelief watching it.

They’re just people I enjoyed being around, not just at the rink but away from the rink. We had some battles, we were competitive — whether it was cards, ping pong, whatever it was. They had a lot of the same characteristics and traits as me, I think that’s why we enjoyed being together so much.

You were famous for skating every day. Even your summer training regiment started earlier than just about anyone’s. In terms of how they would work, and how you would work, what was the environment like in an average practice in Vancouver when all three of you were at the height of your powers?

Let me tell you a story.

So when we would practice, there was a lot of competitiveness involved. When they would come down to shoot, they’d always try to shoot high blocker on me. This was more Henrik than Daniel, but I’m not 100 percent sure. And every single time they went high blocker — I kid you not — I would intentionally stop it with the shaft of my stick.

And every single time, they’d get so mad at me.

“Oh you’re so lucky!” and this and that.

And I’d reply “How is this lucky, if I do it every single time?!”

Like, if I do it every single time, it isn’t lucky. They’d come down, pull it into the middle and shoot blocker side high and I’d save it off the shaft of my stick. At some point that isn’t lucky!

Then they’d get so upset. It became the best part of my day.

I don’t know that we understood when they were playing, that they were so competitive with one another. It feels like that understanding came a bit later. How much did their competitiveness with one another impact the way that every single guy on that team became pretty much the best possible version of themselves as a player?

They competed at every little thing that they did. Like everything. I’m not even joking, anything you can think of, it was like “Who can drink this glass of water faster?” If you could think of it, they would make it into a competition.

That was how I grew up too. I had two brothers, we all played hockey, and we were so competitive. When I was around the twins, that’s also how it was. I think that’s why we enjoyed playing cards, or ping pong, or whatever it was.

Guys feed off of that, they feed off of that in the locker room. It makes it fun, but also, when you’re always trying to be the best at something, it keeps the juices flowing, which you need when you’re playing a game. It elevates everyone.

No question, those guys set the tone for everybody else.

You mentioned that the twins aren’t good card players …

I’m just teasing them … but they aren’t good.

Are they just too honest? I feel like they would be too honest.

Truly, I am just teasing them. We actually used to play a game that’s like seven-up, seven-down. If you’ve never heard of it, you have to call out how many tricks you’re going to get. It’s all strategy, you have to count cards and all that kind of stuff.

So it was always me, Hank and Danny and then we had a rotating fourth player, because whoever came into the game had no chance of winning! So every year it had to be someone different coming in.

For a long time though it was Jannik Hansen — you can ask him about it since he’s still around there — and he’d get absolutely rinsed. That’s probably why he had to retire, he just couldn’t afford it anymore.

(Author’s note: At Luongo’s behest, we did ask Hansen, who replied: “He must be getting old … memory not what it used to be.”)

So I tease them about it, but they were pretty good.

What’s your power rankings of the top-five card players you ever played with — inclusive of both the NHL and international competition?

It depends, at that game in particular, the twins were some of the best.

If we’re talking about poker, they were too conservative, they weren’t as good at poker. So it depends what game you’re talking about.

Let’s do poker, then. Your top five.

Well then there is no top-five; they’re all brutal.

And don’t let Kevin Bieksa make you believe he was a good player. He was terrible. The worst one.

He’s a “plays his gut” kind of guy, isn’t he?

He bluffs every time. Other guys pick him off. Then he says you’re lucky.

He was too aggressive. The twins were too conservative. In poker you have to have a good balance, you know what I’m saying?

All of that said, when you’re playing poker on the plane, there isn’t too much skill involved. Let’s leave it at that.

You had a fascinating answer about the game becoming more free-flowing, tilted toward shooters, and you said you loved it — especially because it’s happened without making the nets bigger — which was a big talking point during your playing days. You once suggested you’d retire if they changed the size of the nets. Did you mean it?

Yeah, I did mean it.

My whole point was exactly what you’re seeing happening today. What makes the game of hockey exciting is not goals, it’s scoring chances, am I right?

So to me, it doesn’t make sense. You know, we could’ve put a 20-foot-wide net, but if a guy shoots from the opposite blue line and scores every time, is that exciting?

To me, when you have a game that’s filled with scoring chances, whether one team scores five goals or the goaltender gets 20 unbelievable saves, that’s what makes the sport exciting. That’s where that frustration was coming from, that the solution to creating more offense in the NHL was making nets bigger, as opposed to maybe opening the game up so that you have more scoring chances — which will lead to more scoring chances, like the way you’ve got today.

If you watch the game today, games are exciting. Most of the time — especially when you watch the Panthers play! — it’s exciting. Stressful, maybe, but exciting.

Luongo with the Canucks in 2014. (Andy Devlin / NHLI via Getty Images)

Is your love for attacking hockey, and your childhood admiration for Grant Fuhr — who was the master of making the key save in a high-scoring game — connected, do you think?

I’m not sure.

That’s why I became a goalie. I just loved to watch him. He just made it so much fun and I tried to mimic him every time. Like when I was at home I’d just throw any toy or anything I could find on the floor. I’d just throw it at my hands, make a glove save and try to mimic him.

That’s literally the reason I became a goaltender. The fact is, I didn’t want to become him to win Stanley Cups, either, I wanted to become him because of the way he made the saves.

You noted that you knew that Danny and Hank would get into the Hall on the first ballot, but you weren’t sure if you would. One of the major things that made your case unassailable, in my mind, is that you played 1,000 games — something only you, Patrick (Roy) and Martin (Brodeur) ever did.

I’m curious to ask you this because you’re now in a role thinking about development and goaltending strategy and practical applications of rest in the NHL. When you played, you’d play consecutive seasons with 72, 74, 76 games per season. Now that you’re in a role thinking about optimizing goaltending performance, has that experience changed how you view your career in terms of the workload you held down?

Yeah, you know, I think about that a lot. And I wonder, if I was managed a little bit better earlier in my career, would I have played another year or two? Did it affect my hips, playing that many games earlier in my career?

It’s tough to say, but I do think about it.

I would say that everything happens for a reason, so I don’t regret it — back then that’s the way it was. You can’t change it.

Nowadays, of course, for me thinking about goalies in our system, or about Spencer Knight, you want to make sure you do right by them and manage them the right way. And do what’s optimal for them.

Now, that said, what we think is optimal today might be totally different 10 years from now. So you have to be open-minded, but you have to think about what’s best for them. I do think about it a lot now that I’m on the other side.

I’m sure you don’t think about it in this context, but Marc-Andre Fleury is about 70 games away from 1,000. So, maybe he gets there. But after him, there’s really nobody from your generation that’s likely to get there. And if a player is realistically going to be capped at about 60 games per season, they have to play something like 16 and a half seasons of 60 starts per game to get to 1,000. Do you think hitting that 1,000-game milestone might be a relic of a bygone era?

It’s a good question. It’ll be tough. You need someone to come in at 18 years old, which is almost impossible to do as a goaltender these days; you have to be really, really special. We had Spencer Knight this year and he’s 20, and it’s hard. It’s not easy. It takes a lot — even as mature and talented as Spencer is, it’s still hard as a first-year professional.

Maybe it’ll change in the future, but you combine that with the fact that you don’t really play 70 games anymore as a starting goaltender, it’s hard to see how it’s going to happen.

With Francois Allaire, what do you remember about the early part about beginning to work with him?

He’s the one I have to give the most credit to. Before working with him, I was just a kid trying to be Grant Fuhr!

He was the one that brought structure to my game and made me understand what it was to be a goalie, in terms of performing, making sure you get up with the right leg, the reason you need to get up with the right leg — all the things you don’t really think of when you’re trying to make glove saves and do the splits.

If you did the splits with Frankie, he’d get mad at you! “This isn’t the circus! You have to do the butterfly and be as big as possible.” You have to understand these things to realize that there’s a science behind this, that percentages play. He was the one who taught me everything I needed to know to get to where I wanted to be, which was in the NHL.

In this market, Ian Clark has become revered, but I’m not sure all Canucks fans understand how close your relationship is with your former goalie coach. What makes Clark so special in terms of getting the best out of all of the people he works with?

Well, he’s the best at what he does nowadays.

You’ve seen where he’s taken Thatcher Demko. He’s a top-five goalie in the NHL right now. He’s a monster in net, he’s intimidating. The way he plays the game is the way we want our goalies to play the game. And he did it with Jacob Markstrom. He did it with Sergei Bobrovsky in Columbus.

The guy has a track record. He knows how to evaluate talent, he does a lot of the scouting for the draft, so he’s pretty special. I know that people in Vancouver see it, I read about it a lot. I’ll just say that as good as fans might think he is, he’s even better than that.

When you think about the second Florida stint you had, you go down there saying, “I’m not coming down here just to ride off into the sunset” and then your save percentages in consecutive seasons down there read .921, .922, .915, .929 — all of those seasons coming after the age of 35. What do those years mean to you, as you reflect on it, in terms of being able to play at that level that late into your career?

That was huge for me, and it was really hurtful to hear that people thought I just wanted to ride into the sunset. People that know me, they know that’s not in my personality.

I always wanted to be the best. Even my last year in the NHL, I still wanted to be the best goalie, even though it was physically impossible at that point. I still wanted it.

I was never happy with how I’d played. I always wanted to be better. I always wanted to keep improving myself and my game, and I think that’s what kept me around for so long.

When I went back to Florida for my second stint, it was all about making the playoffs. I wanted to get back into the playoffs with this team and I wanted to go on a run. That run didn’t happen, we ended up losing in the first round, but that was the main thing in coming back. I wanted to get into the playoffs with this franchise.

There’s a formulation of a question that you’re often asked, and it focuses on your having a “complicated” relationship with the city of Vancouver. When you think about your time in Vancouver, from the first season when you were a Hart Trophy runner-up, through to winning Olympic gold as a starter, through to 2011 and everything that meant, through to your contract and the trade rumours, I might suggest that the relationship wasn’t complicated so much as you were just always the biggest story. This was where you spent the pinnacle of your hockey career, but in context, now that you’re going into the Hall, when you think about playing in Vancouver, the challenges and rewards that come with that, how do you view what it means to be a star player in this city?

It was great. I just wish I’d known how to handle it better, because I would’ve enjoyed it even more than I did.

Even though I love Vancouver and it’s an unbelievable hockey market — especially when the team is playing well, there’s no place you’d rather be — unfortunately for me, I didn’t know how to handle it at times. And it affected me.

That’s the part I’m disappointed in, because I wish I had the same level of maturity and knowledge I have now 10 or 15 years ago when these things were happening, because I would’ve been able to handle it better. And I would’ve been able to enjoy it more.

That’s something I have to deal with, but it doesn’t lessen anything about my time in Vancouver. I still had a great time and I still love going back. First thing I do when I see the schedule is “When are we going back to Vancouver?” That’s just how much it means to me.

Over the course of a player’s career, they don’t do it alone. There’s a ton of support a player gets from a million different places that goes unseen. Anyone you want to shout out, just to let the public know how much they meant to your career?

Well, I’m still wading through a hundred text messages, so I’ll have to finish that up to tell you who that is.

There’s so many different people and it’s tough to just name one. There’s so many people that influenced my career, getting me there, all that kind of stuff. So there’s three people, my parents, of course, who got me there.

When I was in it though, it was always my wife Gina. She’s the one that stood by me all those times, those nights I’d come home upset when things weren’t going well. When I needed someone to talk to, someone who would be there for me, she was the one that was there for me all the time. And a lot of time I was on the road and she was home alone.

I think her support is the one that means the most to me. When I got to the NHL, she was always there for me, through the good times and the bad.

When I got the call today, she was the first one I called.

(Top photo of Luongo speaking while his number is retired by the Florida Panthers in 2020: Eliot J. Schechter / NHLI via Getty Images)


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