When Roberto Luongo calls on Friday afternoon, he's sitting on the cold bleachers of an ice rink, watching his 7-year-old son's hockey practice. It's easy to become distracted by professional athletes' cool jobs and just as easy to forget that they are members of their communities too. Luongo is the Florida Panthers' starting goalie. But he's also a hockey dad who lives in Parkland, Florida. He goes grocery shopping. He shuttles his kids to school. His family goes to church.
When the unthinkable happened in Luongo's hometown on Feb. 14 -- a gunman opened fire at Parkland's Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, killing 17 people -- the goaltender reeled. Before the Panthers' first home game after the shooting, Luongo delivered a pregame speech at the BB&T Center, declaring "it's time for us as a community to take action" and "enough is enough."
Two weeks have passed, and Luongo has another message.
"We need to keep talking about this," he said. "I want the [high school students] to keep fighting. And I want everyone to pay attention. As we all know, it's not front-page news anymore. People in the media have moved on to other stuff. But it's important to keep it in the forefront. It's always going to be there. We just need to keep the dialogue going."
Luongo has lived in Parkland since his first stint with the Panthers in 2000 and met his wife, Gina, there. Every morning since Valentine's Day, they've had to talk to their two children about the tragedy. Over breakfast the kids ask, "What if this happens to us?" Last Thursday, Luongo's 9-year-old daughter told him she didn't want to go to school because she "had a bad feeling" in her stomach. Gina took their daughter to Friday morning mass and at one point, a siren blared outside. "Right away, my daughter jumped up and was looking around," Luongo said. "It's not normal for children to have that feeling. The one thing I want is for my kids to feel safe at school. That's what it's all about, right? I don't care how it gets done; it needs to get done."
Luongo had no idea that his speech would have such an impact. He has accepted awards before at banquets and has addressed teams in locker rooms. But he had never spoken in front of 15,000 people in an arena -- let alone had his words amplified by national media coverage.
"The thing is, when I was in high school and elementary school, I was the worst at orals," Luongo said. "I couldn't talk. If I had to memorize stuff and then say it as I wrote it, it never came out right."
So Luongo gave himself three talking points he wanted to address, then took the ice without a script. "I wanted it to feel natural," he said.
Since then, the Panthers have forged a bond with the hockey team at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. After that game against the Capitals, the high school team visited the Panthers' locker room. They took photos, asked for autographs and just talked hockey.
"It was days after [the shootings] happened, and I was surprised by how strong the kids were," Luongo said. "They were able to have normal interactions. I'd be a mess if I were them."
Three days later, fourth-seeded Stoneman Douglas staved off elimination in the state tournament by upsetting the top-seeded team, then won again for a state championship.
"We were super-jacked to see them win that championship. How they put together that performance is amazing," Luongo said. "It's really inspiring to see the strength you can gather from something like that and turn it into something positive."
When Luongo and I spoke on Friday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott had just signed a bill that imposed a 21-year-old legal age requirement and three-day waiting period on gun purchases and opened the door for some school employees to be armed.
Luongo, 38, has no qualms about speaking out. After all, he engineers one of the NHL's most candid Twitter accounts, @Strombone1. He has been careful not to say anything too divisive, however.
"I didn't want to get too political," he said. "That wasn't what it was about at the time. I wanted to get my message across. That wasn't the purpose. At the same time, something needs to be done. The bill, that's a huge step in the right direction. Hopefully there will be more in the future. The focus needs to be keeping our kids safe."
Luongo says he intends to stay involved with the issue. But as the Panthers gear up for a playoff run with a hectic schedule -- they will play a whopping 17 games in March -- he knows he can't give it his full focus now. "In the offseason, when I have a little more time, we'll see where it goes," he said.
He has already made an impact in the town.
"I've been to the grocery store a bunch of times [since the shooting]. It's right by the high school," Luongo said. "A lot of the parents whose kids come to the school, they come up and thank me."
Luongo smiles and says thanks but feels a tad sheepish. "I just said a few words," he said "It's nothing compared to the strength their own kids are showing."