Thursday, December 3, 2015

Stop the puck ... says Florida's Roberto Luongo

By Larry Wigge

There are certain players you HAVE to have ... no matter how long it takes to make a deal.

Roberto Luongo is one such player that Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon had to have. It took the better part of two years before Tallon re-acquired Roberto Luongo from Vancouver in March of 2014.

The time spent in acquiring one of the game's elite goaltenders was time well spent, according to Tallon, who had been the architect for three Stanley Cups in six seasons at Chicago.

Rebuilding the Panthers was Tallon's latest project ...

"Roberto won a gold medal for Canada in 2006. He took Vancouver to the Cup finals in 2011 ... got beat in Game 7 by Boston," Tallon gushed. "His numbers are phenomenal."

Tallon paused and said, "This is the beginning of something special for this Florida Panthers organization, having Roberto back in the fold and back in Florida where he belongs. We're going to grow together and win many championships."

On this December 1 night, Luongo made 29 saves in a 3-1 Florida Panthers victory at St. Louis, including 17 in the third period, for his 16th career win against the Blues.

"The days of saying; 'I'm young and I'm this or that' are over," he said. "I look forward to the pressure of the expectations fans have for me, but ... "

It was just a split-second between thoughts before he revealed his real aspirations, saying; "I want people to compare me to the Marty Brodeurs and Patrick Roys and Grant Fuhrs of this game. That's my goal ... to be the best goalie in the world."

Dominik Hasek, Grant Fuhr and Glenn Hall have been passed by Luongo -- and soon Tony Esposito on the all-time wins list for eighth overall.

The 36-year-old from Montreal has not won a Stanley Cup like Brodeur and Roy and Fuhr have, but Luongo Luongo is in the NHL's upper echelon in the puck-stopping business.

"I pride myself on being an ultimate competitor," Luongo said. "Everything I do I want to win ... whether it's playing hockey, poker or golf or any other sport."

So does anything scare Luongo? Well ...

"I would say heights," he said, blushing a little. "I never go on roller coasters. I'd never try sky-diving. I get scared of heights."

Quick wit. Quiet confidence. That's Roberto Luongo.

When you're a goaltender, you learn to look beyond what's in your sight. There are often a half-dozen legs and arms between you and the shooter ... and your job is to be in a position to stop the puck no matter where it comes from, no matter how many deflections, how many screens. And Roberto Luongo's vision of where he's at and what he wants is very clear.

Luongo looks you straight in the eyes when he speaks, not like most athletes -- whose eyes waver.

On the floor of his Montreal he grew up in, Luongo used to watch and marvel at Edmonton's Grant Fuhr.

"I used to watch Grant Fuhr on television all the time, watching him make those glove saves. So that's really what attracted me to being a goalie. I just found it so spectacular and exciting," Luongo remembered. "Any time I was playing street hockey with my friends, I tried to make those kind of saves.

"My parents wanted me to skate and move around the ice and not just stand in the net. That's how it was back in the day. But after the third year, I really wanted to switch over. I started playing goalie when I was 12."

Antonio, his dad, worked in the construction and delivery of furniture. Pasqualina, his mom, worked in the marketing for Air Canada.

Luongo quickly became a solid netminder. He was drafted fourth overall in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft. Then, in the summer of 2000, he was traded to Florida.

While playing with Panthers, Luongo would spend at Pizza Time Trattoria. Being an Italian, it felt like home.

"When I went in there, the owner, was Italian, so we started talking in Italian," Luongo said, of his burgeoning friendship with Umberto Cerbone. "It was right next to my townhouse, so I started going there every day ..."

The friendship became more ...

"After a while, they felt like family even though I'd just started dating Gina, his daughter," said Luongo. "I was friends with the whole family before I met her.

"Italians are always close to their families. That's the way we're brought up."

Now Roberto and Gina two childen -- they have Gabriella, who is eight years old, and Gianni, who will turns six on December 27.

At a time when we constantly read about how a team is looking to get its top players a rest, Luongo threw me a curveball.

"Not at all," Luongo said. "When you're winning, you stay energized. You don't look at the number of games you've played or getting a breather here or there. You want to be in there every night.

"Years ago, I played a ton in the regular season ... and I was more than ready to go in the playoffs. You play all your career to perform in the playoffs, so there's no way you feel tired when the playoffs begin."

What? Worry about being tired? No way, according to Luongo.

That's the kind of refreshing frame of mind I think you'd hear from most players who live for hockey ... and live for the playoffs -- even if we in the media have built these myths that a player has to be ultra-fresh for the potential two-month run in the playoffs.

"I dreamed as a kid of playing in the NHL, playing in the playoffs and playing in an overtime game in the playoffs," Luongo continued, smiling from ear-to-ear. "What a rush! Extra pressure makes you want to thrive even more."

You can feel the fire in his voice, can't you? The fight of a champion. The hunger to win. And now, he's ready for more.

"Lou's and boos all sound the same," Luongo said, kiddingly. "I won't be able to tell the difference. I just want to enjoy the game."

Roberto Luongo wears a mask. In Florida, he plays in goal with a mask and a purpose ... to win.

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