The deal, an explosion that propelled waves of surprise across the NHL, was encapsulated and confirmed in a tweet, as of course it should have been when you’re dealing with the man known online as @strombone1.
It was, on Tuesday afternoon, a single character: the image of a palm tree. Roberto Luongo is going home.
After everything – the benching in the 2012 playoffs, the promised-but-failed trade, the demotion to backup, the last-summer-we-wanted-to-get-rid-of-you-but-decided-to-keep-you, the elevation to starter again, and last weekend, benched again for a rookie backup – Luongo is done with the Vancouver Canucks.
The 34-year-old goaltender is going exactly to where he wanted: to the Florida Panthers – the team which traded him to Vancouver eight years ago, and the state where he and his family have their off-season home.
For the Canucks, the blockbuster trade may be simply the first in a swift, two-part drama in which general manager Mike Gillis plays the role of an emergency surgeon desperate to revive a dying patient.
Next: the potential trade of star centre Ryan Kesler by the NHL deadline of 3 p.m. (EST) Wednesday. Such a move would extract the beating heart of this franchise – a dangerous procedure.
On Tuesday, Gillis would only say the team is listening to offers.
“I don’t know if we’re done yet or not,” the GM told reporters on a conference call.
The speed at which Vancouver went from a team in a slump and on the fringe of the playoffs to one in the rush of a major overhaul and rebuild is dizzying. Amid the conflagration Tuesday, as gossip and rumours about Kesler wrenched over to eyes-popping-out-of-head surprise at the Luongo deal, another blow was unveiled: Star forward Daniel Sedin may be done for the season. He was placed on injured reserve, and there is no timetable for his return.
The 24 hours from the Luongo deal through to the NHL trade deadline will mark the biggest day in the Canucks history since they blew their last shot at the Stanley Cup, in Game 7 in June, 2011. It could well be make-or-break for the madcap surgeon at the centre of the swirl, Gillis, whose boss (team owner Francesco Aquilini) is emotional and impatient, having watching his many millions of dollars buy exactly one playoff win since the Cup failing.
For Luongo, who Gillis wasn’t able to trade for more than a year, the return is not much: 24-year-old goalie Jacob Markstrom, a Swede who is in the minors, and Shawn Matthias, a 26-year-old centre with nine goals and 16 points in 59 games this year.
The return from a potential Kesler trade will determine the Canucks tack, whether they wrest themselves from a Calgary Flames-like, slow-but-inexorable slide to the bottom of the NHL or, somehow, are revived and return to contention next year.
Asked about the apparent botching of the whole situation, Gillis dodged and weaved. He cited, in part, factors beyond his control, such as the decrease in the salary cap this season.
“You guys can look at that,” the GM told reporters of the bigger picture.
Luongo’s arrival in 2006 was a demarcation point in Vancouver, as the team ascended to the precipice of the Cup. Along the way, Luongo backstopped Canada to a glorious gold medal in 2010, in the same Vancouver arena he and his team the next year let the Cup slip away.
Luongo’s departure is the gravestone of an era of Canucks excellence.
For the goalie, however, the trade is rebirth. Luongo was alerted to his new life when he was woken by Gillis from an afternoon nap ahead of a planned start Tuesday in Phoenix. “Stunned” was Luongo’s reaction – not unlike everyone’s reaction last June, when the Canucks traded young goalie Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils.
And so the Ballad of Bobby Lu, an epic, a dirge, is over, ended as wildly as so much of the song. At the end, the man leaves without bitterness, without anger, thankful to fans – but with some regret. Game 7, June 15, 2011: Boston 4, Vancouver 0.
“That’s the one that’s going to hurt me for a while,” Luongo said. “Wish we could have done a bit more to win that game.”