Roberto Luongo sat on a toilet in Anaheim in May 2007, living out a gnarly and highly specific anxiety dream. Less than a month earlier, the young Vancouver Canucks goaltender had made his NHL playoff debut with a 72-save, quadruple-overtime win over the Dallas Stars, going on to post a ridiculous .950 save percentage in the series. Now, though, the Canucks faced elimination against the Ducks in Game 5 of the second round, and with the score tied 1-1 at the end of regulation, a huge overtime was about to begin. Actually, it had already begun, which Luongo could hear from his seat in the bathroom.
He panicked: A trainer had said the game wouldn’t start without him. How bad would he feel if the Canucks’ season ended because someone scored on his poor backup goalie, Dany Sabourin?! The minutes ticked by like days; Sabourin stopped five shots and the broadcast team wondered aloud where on earth Luongo could be. Describing the waking nightmare years later, both in Sports Illustrated and on the 31 Thoughts podcast, Luongo said that his mad dash to get back to the ice was so frenzied that he’s not even sure whether he wiped.
The whole night was classic Luongo, and not just because of the comedic nature of his harrowing circumstances. It was also classic Luongo because all night he kept his team in a game it did not deserve to win, through that first overtime and into another, ultimately finishing with 56 saves. It was classic Luongo because, even after all of that, his team still lost, 2-1. It was classic Luongo because the man has a knack for dramatic reappearances. But mostly it was classic Luongo because, almost six years later, the whole thing was the subject of a borderline-nostalgic 2013 tweet on what was at the time his worst-kept-secret Twitter account, @strombone1. “And this is where the magic happened…..” he wrote, attaching a photo of an unexceptional porcelain throne and the hashtag # [poopmoji], one step removed from a literal shitpost—just the way he (and we) likes it.
The 40-year-old Luongo, who announced his retirement on Wednesday, played 19 seasons in the NHL, the first for the New York Islanders and the rest split between the Florida Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. He built a Hall of Fame–worthy career on the ice. In six different seasons he received votes for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league MVP. In the early aughts, he started more than 72 games a year for four straight seasons. He was in net in Vancouver when Team Canada won the 2010 Olympic gold medal over the U.S. in overtime. (Or, as he later tweeted, he was “In the fetal position inside the net.”) He came as close to the Stanley Cup as it gets without the cigar, losing the 2011 final to the Boston Bruins in a wild, brutal, seven-game series that thrust him into an extremely harsh spotlight for years. After being traded back to the Florida Panthers in 2014, with whom he spent some of his formative years, he was the old man on a young-guns team that reached the playoffs for just the second time since 2000.
Luongo was Twitter’s greatest hockey player and hockey’s finest tweep. But after announcing that he would be hanging up his pads—via an extremely-him tweet in which he posted a visual of said pads dangling from a telephone wire and joked about LeBron James and the demographics of South Florida—he has entered a new stage of his life as one more rich retiree with a social media account and a lot of time on his hands. And you could say he’s already in midseason form.
Lots of people retire to spend more time with their loved ones, but when Luongo told his family that he was retiring, his kids cried. “One of the hardest things I’ve gone through in making this decision,” wrote Luongo in a characteristically forthright letter to fans on Wednesday, “was when I told Gianni and Gabriella, my kids. Seeing them cry when I told them about it because they loved coming to the games and watching me play so much, it really broke my heart.”
It wouldn’t be fair to say that I can completely relate to poor Gianni and Gabriella, because Luongo is not my father, genetically or even spiritually speaking. (While many athletes exude powerful hi dad or my sweet son energy, the quirky and extremely online Luongo has always felt more like an offbeat cousin.) Still, I had pretty much the same reaction that his children did to the news: an emotional resistance to the end of an era.
The first Stanley Cup final I covered in my brand-new job as a professional sportswriter in 2011 was the Boston Bruins against the Vancouver Canucks, and I was equal parts thrilled and overwhelmed to be there. There were face-punches and finger-chomps and effectively-career-ending-injuries and two nail-biter 1-0 games and one 8-1 drubbing and, when it was finally all over, anarchists setting a city aflame. And all of these things were less interesting to me than Luongo, who alternately sparkled and struggled and kept a poker face about neither. In that loss to the Bruins, he won me over for life.
He posted two shutouts and an overtime victory … and he also got pulled from Game 6 at TD Garden after giving up three goals in eight minutes while Bostonians merrily jeered. Watching him on the ice throughout that series was a little bit like watching a tennis player slowly unravel in a grueling, doomed match—that same tangible pathos and soul laid bare, those same flashes of brilliance followed by slow-motion wrecks. And if that wasn’t enough, watching Luongo talk to the media was somehow even more emotionally intense.
Shortly after the Canucks won Game 5 after intentionally ricocheting the puck off the end boards to elude out-of-position Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, Luongo was asked, from a goaltender’s perspective, “how difficult it is” to deal with off-the-wall setups like that. “It’s not hard if you’re playing in the paint,” Luongo responded. “It’s an easy save for me, but if you’re wandering out and aggressive like he does, that’s going to happen.” Then he added, in reference to his own, more conservative style: “He might make some saves that I won’t.”
The answer wasn’t artful, though it also wasn’t as malicious as it was ultimately made out to be. (Newbie rube that I was, I remember thinking it was a great, honest response!) But being blunt to the media during the playoffs is a lot like staying out past 2 a.m.: Nothing actually good will happen and everyone winds up exhausted. The next day, trying to explain that he wasn’t slamming Thomas, Luongo made things worse: “I’ve been pumping his tires ever since the series started,” he said before Game 6, sounding wounded, “and I haven’t heard one nice thing he had to say about me.” Thomas, informed of this, grinned in response and then politely rekt his opponent. “I guess I didn’t realize it was my job to pump his tires,” he said, and then went on to win the Stanley Cup and the playoff MVP. Luongo, meanwhile, ate shit for awhile—until he started tweeting about it.
Luongo was always one of hockey’s most unfiltered smokes, though not in that rude Sean Avery way. He’s more like a mashup between Jim Carrey in Liar Liar and Lena Dunham in Girls: cursed by honesty and frequent surges of self-awareness. “Any mean thing someone is going to think of to say about me,” Dunham’s character says, “I’ve already said to me, about me, probably in the last half hour.” That is the guiding principle of a great deal of Luongo’s existence, whether he’s in a postgame press conference or being interviewed, as a man on the street, by the local news about the weather. (Luongo talking about sunshine is the OG Klay Thompson talking about scaffolding.)
Two seasons after coming so close to the Cup, as his friend and nominal Canucks backup Cory Schneider quickly rose above him in organizational esteem, Luongo became so certain he’d be traded that he sold his place in Vancouver. But the 12-year, $64 million contract he signed in 2010 proved to be a third rail, and he remained awkwardly with the Canucks. In the spring of 2013, Luongo was asked about the situation. “My contract sucks,” he said with an isn’t it obvious? smirk. “It’s probably why I’m still here.” He sounded like any ol’ random fan calling in to talk radio. A month earlier, when a TV host solicited questions for the Canucks GM on Twitter, Luongo had replied: “can you ask Mr. Gillis if there’s any chance I get an extension?”
Assemble an elite task force of the finest minds in public relations and personal branding, and even they would not possibly orchestrate a social media rollout as universally beloved and perception-shifting as the one Luongo pulled off. Like so many of us who thrive online, Luongo was sometimes, in person, a tough nut to crack. His deadpan, beady-eyed remarks were easily misconstrued, and he seemed to struggle with the pro athlete skill set of shrouding oneself with distant gazes and cliché-ridden answers. On Twitter—his handle was also the one he used to play online poker, a fact that helped e-sleuths suss out that it was actually him before he admitted it—he made fun of Gary Bettman, shared parenting challenges, and frequently chirped others, though mostly himself.
Me to my wife: Babe when I come to Montreal I get recognized a lot— Strombone (@strombone1) July 19, 2018
Family walking towards me with big smile: Excuse me can you take a picture?
Me puffing out my chest a little: See babe I told you pic.twitter.com/6nUfIoLrq4
On Wednesday, Luongo followed up his retirement tweet with an open letter posted on the Florida Panthers website that thanked his family and his goalie coaches, and expressed his desire to stay in Florida, and in his neighborhood of Parkland, “for the rest of our time on this earth.” In February 2018, a week after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting, Luongo emotionally addressed the crowd at a Panthers game with a powerful statement about the tragedy and the students’ response. He also wrote that he hopes to remain a part of the Panthers organization, which is poised to enter the 2019-20 season with some pep in its step: This spring, the team hired former Cup-winning Chicago coach Joel Quenneville, and the team is also said to be the front-runner for two high-profile free agents—forward Artemi Panarin and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, both from the Columbus Blue Jackets.
And in his letter Luongo also did what he has come to do best: humanized the realities of the life of a pro athlete who happens to be neither cold-blooded nor iron-hearted. Retiring athletes tend to have similar eureka moments: Sooner or later, there comes a time when you look at your offseason workout schedule and say, oh, hell no. “Since I had my hip surgery a couple of years ago,” he wrote, “I’ve been showing up two hours before every practice and three hours before every game to work out my hip. … My entire life revolved around recovery, strengthening and making sure I was ready to go the next day.”
This moment often gets overlooked but let's just take a sec and appreciate that Burrows would have never 'Slayed the Dragon' if it wasn't for Luongo making this monumental save moments before in game 7 OT.#Canucks#Luongo pic.twitter.com/5vb30p8OH7— BoestMode (@BoestMode) June 27, 2019
This being Luongo, his retirement brought out the jokes, and the “jokes.” (The network that airs Blackhawks games straight up mocked him for crying after giving up a hat trick to Patrick Kane in the playoffs in 2009 and later deleted the tweet. Learn to read the room!!!) Many people, noticing that his early retirement would trigger a salary recapture penalty for his old team in Vancouver, thanked him for his service to the Canucks and made a variation on the same zinger: Maybe, they hoped, this financial hit would preclude Vancouver from throwing money at an unexceptional free agent like Tyler Myers. And if it did, well, that would be … wait for it … one of the biggest saves Luongo ever made for the team!
Tough but fair, I suppose, though my biggest reaction to this was surprise that Luongo didn’t beat everyone to the punch and tweet out the joke first. I guess maybe he really has lost a step, though I’ll never count out a comeback for dear ol’ Strombone.