Roberto Luongo was at his Florida Panthers office Monday morning, and every so often general manager Bill Zito would step in to ask ask for an update.
“Any call yet?” he’d ask.
“No call,” Luongo said.
This is the hardest part of any Hall of Fame announcement day. These last few hours. Are you in? Are you out? Zito was sure Luongo would get in. Most people in hockey were, too.
Still, when Luongo’s phone rang about noon Monday and the Hall of Fame officials in Toronto were on the other end it was, was, “an amazing moment,” he said a few hours later. “It’s still kind of surreal.”
What made it unique was Luongo stepped out of his office and shared the news directly with the Panthers. That’s only fitting because even if he’s not the Panthers’ property alone — he was elected to the Hall with former Vancouver teammates Daniel and Henrik Sedin — Luongo instantly becomes the franchise’s first legitimate Hall of Fame player.
Sure, others like Pavel Bure or Igor Larionov, passed through town in their great careers. But Luongo was part of the South Florida sports fabric. He was a rookie here, instantly setting a franchise record with five shutouts, and retired here after 19 seasons. He was a Panthers’ All-Star near his start at 24 and near his end at 35.
He met his wife here. They raised their children in Parkland. He took the microphone in the Panthers’ first game after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High and spoke emotionally for all of us. He now works in the front office as the head of goaltending in the organization and special assistant to Zito.
Luongo also represents the oddness of the Panthers’ past two decades more than any player. He was the centerpiece of best and worst trade in franchise history. Each explains in some manner why he got Monday’s call.
“A franchise player,” Panthers general manager Bryan Murray called Luongo in trading for him in 2000. The deal also brought Olli Jokinen, who left with the most goals, assists and points in franchise history, for two players who never made a mark in Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha.
That was the best deal in franchise history.
“A deal we had to make,” said Mike Keenan, the GM and coach when Luongo was traded to Vancouver effectively for Todd Bertuzzi, who played all of seven games for the Panthers.
There’s no need to get into all the ways that set back this franchise. What matters to Luongo’s journey to the Hall is it confirmed his greatness. He helped Vancouver to the Stanley Cup Finals. He finished second there for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player and was a three-time finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie.
“He was the difference for us to get to the next level,” Daniel Sedin said. “If you talk about a winner, he’s the guy. The way he competed in practice and games — but mostly practice. He never took a day off. That’s something a lot of players learned from.
“He’d play almost every day and be there the morning after for practice. He wanted to get better each and every day. That was the key for us to see and take it to the next level.”
He won the Olympic gold with Canada in 2010. He achieved so much there’s always a what-if quality in South Florida, even as the Panthers got him back in a 2014 trade.
“When I came back the second time around, I was more the veteran guy and did something I’d never done with the Panthers and that’s make the playoffs,” he said. “We did that one year (in 2016), and I had a good series against the Islanders and, unfortunately, we lost.”
That rising team was then broken up through more follies of mismanagement, but Luongo’s legacy was set by then to get the call on Monday. Vancouver will be a big part of his induction, too, what with him and the Sedin twins.
Luongo tweeted Monday afternoon: “Best line in hockey. Luongo-Sedin-Sedin.”
Time runs away from you, everyone knows that. Down at the other end of South Florida, Pat Riley was starting the cycle of sports by introducing draft pick Nikola Jovic with a No. 5 Miami Heat jersey. “We’re going to hang it from the rafters one day,” the Heat president said.
Luongo’s jersey hangs from the rafters. He then got the kind of phone call Monday only the rare players get. A good year for the Panthers got better. They finally got one of their own in the Hall of Fame.