Return to Panthers revitalizing, perspective-changing for Luongo

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- It is a glorious, sunny day in the twilight of Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo's career. Or maybe "twilight" isn't quite the right term currently for of one of the game's most successful, highest-profile netminders.

Maybe "renaissance" is a better term for this day, this moment, this player.

Ellen Ransford, a cancer survivor from Vancouver, is at the team's practice facility in Coral Springs, fairly glowing with anticipation at spending time with her hero as part of a vacation she began planning the minute Luongo was traded back to the Panthers at the trade deadline by the Vancouver Canucks almost two years ago.

"He's amazing," Ransford said. "I've always had his back and he's always had mine."

On this day, the Panthers' locker room is positively chock-a-block -- for them, at least -- with reporters, including an ESPN camera crew and anchor Linda Cohn, spending time with ageless star Jaromir Jagr.

As Luongo heads out the back door of the practice facility, a box of knee-hockey sticks for his son's birthday party in hand, it stretches the boundaries of fancy to imagine these many threads could have been wound together in the manner they have: Luongo back in Florida; the Panthers on the rise, sitting in first place in the Atlantic Division after a franchise-best 12-game winning streak; the future of a team, whose future has seemingly always been in question, somehow more secure.

It's a dynamic that brings into sharp focus the sharp line that separates the beginning of the end from the hot-burning coals driving the game's most competitive players, no matter what the calendar might suggest.

Luongo began the week with a .927 save percentage, having played in 36 of the Panthers' first 46 games. Part of Luongo's persona, his legacy to this point, is taking the Canucks to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals in 2011. The long view is that getting to that point is a journey so few travel and it should be appreciated, but going that far and not taking the final step remains a burr that will itch Luongo until he gets a chance to erase the memory. I recently sat down and discussed this topic and more with him.

So, let's start with the moment you were dealt back to the Panthers by the Canucks two years ago.

Roberto Luongo: We were in Phoenix, actually. We were playing the Coyotes. It was the first game after the Heritage Classic. And I was actually starting that game.

As opposed to the Heritage Classic, where you were benched?

Luongo: Exactly. I was actually in my pregame nap in the afternoon and I got a call from [then-Vancouver GM] Mike Gillis, which was odd. He just told me that I'd been traded to Florida. It was kind of a bit of a shocking moment that I really wasn't expecting at all. Due to the fact that I was playing that night and getting ready, I didn't think anything was going to happen.

I think it was, like, overwhelming when I heard it. I wasn't processing it. I was trying to get traded for over a year and a half and nothing was happening. And then out of the blue you get a call that you were traded, in fact, and it was to Florida. It was like, I really didn't know how to be or how to feel. It was weird.

The deal was, in many ways, a homecoming, given that your wife is from South Florida and you met during your first stint as a Panther.

Luongo: When I first got traded here from the Islanders, a bunch of players always used to go eat at this Italian restaurant right by the arena. And so they took me there a few times. The owner happened to be my [future] wife's dad. I'd always see this girl in the restaurant and I never knew who it was, and then happened to find out it was his daughter and that's how we met.

Which all sounds very Old World.

Luongo: It is. That's how we are. The Italians are old-school.

And has the return to South Florida been what you imagined? Can you, in fact, go home again?

Luongo: You know, it's been great. It's tough to make a full assessment on it because the main reason I came back here was to bring the team back to the playoffs and be a contender. One of the reasons that I did come back is [agent Pat Brisson] made sure before he said it was OK for me to go back here [that] we wanted to make sure ownership was on board with bringing a winning team.

Obviously, the young talent was here, but sometimes you've got to add veteran pieces, and [I] wanted to make sure ownership was on board with that stuff. Once Pat had the green light, I think it was great. Right now, we're sitting in first place. You can feel that it's right there, we've just got to go get it.

Did you wonder if you could deliver on his end of the bargain in helping elevate the Panthers to relevance in South Florida?

Luongo: Not really. It crosses your mind sometimes. It's weird, because now I'm 36. Something weird's happening where you're, like, thinking, 'How many years do I have left?' You think that all the time. It's something I think about a lot. Because you don't know, right? I'd love to play til I'm [Jagr's] age, but who knows? There's so many things in between, so it's something that I think about a lot. Probably more than I should. I don't know if that's good or bad. Maybe it's a good thing, it makes me more aware.

And that brings us to convenient storyline of you playing out the string in a return to Florida, which is a storyline you did not particularly enjoy.

Luongo: That's what people said about me when I came back here: 'He came here to retire.' The exact quotes was, 'Ride into the sunset,' all that kind of stuff. That stuff pisses me off because that's not me. I want to win. Yeah, this is home and it's nice, but I want to win. That's why I play hockey. It's not in my system to be like, 'Ah, I'm just going to play hockey because we love it and if we win 10 games this year, it doesn't matter.' That's miserable. That's miserable.

You don't know if you're going to get another chance. That's why these are such important, critical times of the year that every game is so important. I think after last year, a lot of guys realized that. I think for me, personally, in my career I find that I've learned the most out of my failures than by my accomplishments. That's where I've [gotten] the most out of myself and how to deal with things, and how to get better out of all the failures that I've had, which are many and well-documented.

Isn't it interesting that a man can take his team to the doorstep [like Luongo did with the Canucks, getting them to a 3-2 lead in the series in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals] and still finds that it counts as a failure?

Luongo: I know. But there's the three games in Boston where things didn't go well and that's what people look at. Especially going into Game 6, I just had a great feeling that that was going to be it, and for some reason it didn't work out. I can't tell you why that happened. I don't have an explanation for it. But I do remember a lot of stuff, and this goes along with maturing and a lot of stuff on the outside that was getting to me, which shouldn't have been. It's stuff I'll probably regret for the rest of my career, the way you handled things and absorb information from the outside that maybe you would have done differently nowadays.

There's still a lot of hockey left in this season. Nothing is guaranteed, and for a Florida team that hasn't won a playoff series since 1996 and has made the playoffs just four times since coming into the league in 1993, the question is whether they're turning one of many corners to come on the path to the ultimate hockey success.

Luongo: Especially coming into this season, I've felt there was a buzz around this team. People were excited about last year and the step that we took. 'Oh, we're close.' But then, obviously, when we were on the streak, that just magnified it so much. Everybody's talking about us in town, which is nice.

The other day, before the last [road] trip, I was watching the sports and we were the lead-off story, which never happens. Usually, we're just a footnote at the end of the sports on TV. This time we were the lead-off. So, people are talking about us, generating a lot of buzz. That's good. They want a winning team. All they want is a winner. I understand that.

That's why I'm here. That's why I play. It all ties in to everything we're talking about. My age, and I think about that stuff. We're right there on the cusp. Right now, it's like the best years to be playing, you know what I mean?

That's why I want to keep it going as long as I can and hopefully perform at this level, if not better. It all ties in together. Sometimes, when you think about it, it's scary, like you don't know what's going to happen. You just try and live in the moment and enjoy it, and that's what I'm doing right now.