Former goalie Roberto Luongo, who on Saturday night became the first Florida Panthers player to have his number retired and his jersey raised to the rafters at the BB&T Center, hadn’t thought much about what this would feel like … until recently.
Luongo, who split nearly all of his career between the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks, visited that aforementioned city on Feb. 12. That’s when the Canucks retired the numbers of his ex-teammates, the Sedin twins, No. 22 Daniel and No. 33 Henrik.
“I realized how special a moment it was,” Luongo said of the Sedins’ ceremony, “and I started thinking about my own.”
Luongo, a 40-year-old Montreal native, played 19 years in the NHL and won 489 games, which ranks third in league history. He’s second all-time in games played by goalies with 392, ninth in shutouts (77) and tied for sixth in save percentage (.919). His jersey was retired — fittingly enough — before his Panthers played his hometown team, the Montreal Canadiens.
Before the game, Luongo fielded questions in English and French, handling each of them as easily as the thousands of pucks he stopped in his career.
Luongo, who is now employed by the Panthers in hockey operations, said he enjoys seeing fans wearing his replica jersey, No. 1. He also said that the number itself has always had meaning to him.
“When I was a kid, No. 1 meant being No. 1 — being the best at everything or at least trying to be the best,” Luongo said. “No. 1 in your program and No. 1 in your heart … It’s nice to know you are somebody’s favorite player.”
Luongo was certainly No. 1 for many Panthers fans, who greeted him with the familiar call of “Luuuuu” again on Saturday. Luongo choked up several times during an emotional speech, when thanking his wife, Gina, children Gianna and Gabriella, GM Dale Tallon, owner Vinnie Viola and the fans.
Panthers coach Joel Quenneville, who is in his first year with this franchise, never coached Luongo, who retired after last season. But Quenneville, while with the Chicago Blackhawks, coached against Luongo and the Canucks in some epic playoff battles.
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“He had a special career, and he’s meant a lot to everybody in South Florida,” Quenneville said. “This is a special night. He has been great for the game, great for the league and great for the goaltending union [a reference to the large salaries he commanded]. He is very deserving of this honor.”
Growing up, Luongo was cut from his peewee team, causing him to switch to goalie. His career took off at his new position, and he emulated goalie Grant Fuhr, an NHL star for Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton in those days.
Luongo, the fourth overall NHL Draft pick in 1997, played just 24 games with his original organization, the New York Islanders. On June 24, 2000, the Panthers acquired Luongo and Olli Jokinen in a deal with the Islanders, who got Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha.
Luongo was involved in two more big trades. On June 23, 2006, he was traded to Vancouver, and, on March 4, 2014, the Panthers reacquired him.
And although he never won a Stanley Cup or a Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s top goalie, Luongo won two Olympic gold medals — in 2010 as Canada’s starter and in 2014 as Carey Price’s backup.
A six-time All-Star, Luongo is a family man, a part of the Parkland community and also an avid golfer and poker player. But the Panthers are still a big part of his heart.
“I’m here every day, and I’m at every home game,” Luongo said. “I feel like part of the team still. The losses hurt just as much.”
Luongo now joins the other retired jerseys for South Florida’s other major sports franchises: Bob Griese (12), Dan Marino (13) and Larry Csonka for the Dolphins; and Chris Bosh (1), Dwyane Wade (3), Tim Hardaway (10) and Alonzo Mourning (33) for the Heat.