SUNRISE, Fla. – A familiar face, well, mask, was on the ice with the Florida Panthers during the team’s latest practice.
Goaltender Roberto Luongo, whose number hangs in the FLA Live Arena rafters and who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November, strapped on the pads and was a full participant during Wednesday’s practice at the big rink in Sunrise.
Luongo retired from his playing career following the 2018-19 season and soon after moved into the Panthers’ front office.
It was several months before he would even put on ice skates again, and that was just to film a video with his family that would be part of his jersey retirement ceremony.
That was in early 2020.
Back then, Luongo wasn’t shy about saying he had no desire to put the goalie pads back on any time soon.
In fact, it would be several years before he’d strap the pillows back on. It happened earlier this month at the NHL All-Star Skills Competition, when he donned the custom CCM setup honoring each leg of his incredible career that was gifted to him when he retired.
Luongo looked like his usual self, even stopping Toronto’s Mitch Marner during the breakaway challenge event.
Apparently Luongo got a taste of the amazing feeling that comes with putting all that gear on, skating on a patch of ice and stopping frozen, speeding hockey pucks and decided that he was ready for a little bit more action.
Wednesday, the Panthers decided to give goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky the day off. Luongo took a break from his day job as Special Advisor to Panthers GM Bill Zito and stepped in for Bob between the pipes on ice he’s more than a little familiar with.
“You forget how dominant he was in the net, just on his size alone,” Panthers head coach Paul Maurice said following the skate. “When he gets into the net, and then you start to have flashbacks of games that he’s played…he’s a Hall of Fame player it’s fun to have him come out.”
Maurice joked that the first dozen or so shots on Luongo were “muffins” because nobody wanted to be the guy to score on him.
That was until Radko Gudas took his turn shooting at Lu.
“I finally scored on him,” Gudas said with a big laugh. “It was great to see him, great to get him in a practice like that. I think all the guys enjoyed it. A different body in the net is always fun to shoot at, and I thought he held his ground pretty well.”
That sentiment appeared to be the consensus throughout the locker room.
“He hasn’t changed one bit,” said Panthers forward Matthew Tkachuk. “You still shoot it at him and it just sticks to him, there’s no rebounds.”
Tkachuk recalled scoring once on Luongo during his playing career and said it’s a “very fond memory.”
“But I wasn’t even close to scoring on him today,” he added.
Some things never change. When Luongo is on the ice, goals are going to be hard to come by.
Which explains why Gudas’ extra-special tally during Wednesday’s practice, and his excited reaction, didn’t go unnoticed.
“We got it on video, we’re sending it to him,” Maurice said.
Now that Luongo appears to be re-embracing his goaltending roots, it wouldn’t seem too far-fetched to think this kind of practice guest appearance could happen again.
First, let’s see how he feels following his first hockey practice in half a decade. Maybe give him a couple days before asking, though.