Standing at a podium at Rogers Arena, Roberto Luongo was being peppered with questions. Back in the city for his first hockey game since he was traded to the Florida Panthers last March, Luongo was asked about the meaning of it all, the game on Thursday night against his old team, on the ice where he marked his greatest victory – gold for Canada in 2010 – and his toughest defeat – the Game 7 Stanley Cup loss to the Boston Bruins.
The questions were about closure, about a chapter ended, about the emotion after everything – the wins and losses and especially the strange trade saga that gurgled for nearly two years. But Luongo, at 35, one of the great goaltenders of his generation, has found peace. He doesn't ponder or parse things. He's a poker player. He accepts his cards, he plays his hand.
The goal is simple. "Have as much fun as I can out there," said Luongo, after practice, in a red T-shirt, grey shorts and black flip-flops, his contentedness set against the backdrop of the toothy snarl of Florida's panther logo.
Fun equals results. While Luongo may be known to casual fans as a goalie who occasionally gets perforated by opponents, the far greater truth is that he is one of the most reliable top-tier backstops in the game. "He's a winning machine," said retired goaltender Kelly Hrudey, a Hockey Night in Canada analyst.
In his return to Florida, where Luongo first made his name in the National Hockey League, he is building his legacy. A win against the Canucks on Thursday night would be Luongo's 389th career victory, which would tie him for 11th on the all-time list with Dominik Hasek, the Czech netminder who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame two months ago.
This is Luongo's 15th season, and the cognoscenti consensus before the puck dropped in early October was that Florida would be among the worst teams in the league. Instead, Luongo has been a tremendous ballast, and the Panthers are in contention for the playoffs as the season's midway mark nears.
"He's played outstanding," Florida coach Gerard Gallant said.
Among goalies with at least 20 starts, Luongo is No. 4 in even-strength save percentage. His total save percentage is 0.924 – which would be the third-best mark of his career and is solidly above his stellar career mark of 0.919, a number that ranks among the best ever.
The possibility of the Hall of Fame begins to come into focus.
Luongo, like another great contemporary goalie, Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers, does not have a Stanley Cup ring. But like Lundqvist, he does have an Olympic gold medal. And if Luongo maintains his play over three, four or five years, on a young Panthers team with promise, he could crack 500 wins, which would make him only the third goaltender ever to reach that mark. Patrick Roy was the first and entered the Hall in 2006. Martin Brodeur, who grew up near Luongo in the east end of Montreal, is closing in on 700 wins and is a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer.
"Roberto [would] be right in contention," said broadcaster and retired goaltender Darren Pang. "He's going to have to put up numbers."
The Hall has not been kind to goaltenders in recent years. From 1960 through 1989, 24 goaltenders were inducted. In the 21/2 decades since, only five have made the grade: Billy Smith (1993), Grant Fuhr (2003), Roy, Ed Belfour (2011) and Hasek.
Several names have yet to be deemed good enough: Rogie Vachon, Mike Vernon, Tom Barrasso, Andy Moog, Curtis Joseph (No. 4 in all-time wins with 454). The latest on the bubble is Chris Osgood – whose 401 wins place him in the 10th spot, alongside a sparkling record in the playoffs and several Cups – but his success is credited to the team he played on, the Detroit Red Wings, as though being an Edmonton Oiler didn't help Fuhr.
"They don't know what number to put on a goaltender," said Pang of the Hall of Fame voters. "Is it 350 wins? It is 400?"
Luongo can mute this. He is within reach of 500 wins, which would make his candidacy almost unassailable. There is, Hrudey noted, a lot of hockey left to play. "We're getting a little ahead of ourselves," he said. "At this point, he's had a remarkable career."
To Corey Hirsch, a retired goaltender and goalie coach, there are a lot of good netminders, so to distinguish oneself as great is more difficult. "It's really hard to separate yourself," Hirsch said. Luongo, he added, "is going to be a candidate."
Luongo will leave the big questions to later. He has relished his return to Vancouver, lunches and dinners with old friends and teammates, goodbyes he didn't get to make when he was suddenly traded in March.
His wry, self-deprecating humour is the same on Twitter, where he jokes around as @strombone1. He tweets less often these days but aims a lot of it at himself: In July, when Germany pounded Brazil in the World Cup, Luongo tweeted, "NO I was not in goal for Brasil today." As the NHL season began, he tweeted a picture of himself on the ice in a fetal position and wrote, "To all of those that drafted me on their fantasy hockey teams, rest assured, I've been working on some new techniques."
Luongo joined Twitter as a salve during his challenging last years in Vancouver. "He went through a lot here," said Panthers captain Willie Mitchell, who had also been a teammate as a Canuck. Mitchell several times called the elongated trade "unique" – and not in a kind way. A new home – Luongo's old one – has been really good for him, said Mitchell. It has put the focus back on Luongo's game – the reason he is "one of the best goalies in the league."