By Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER – Roberto Luongo says if things had played out differently at last season’s Heritage Classic he might still be a member of the Vancouver Canucks.
Former head coach John Tortorella started backup Eddie Lack over the veteran goaltender in the Canucks’ outdoor showcase game at B.C. Place Stadium against the Ottawa Senators on March 2, a game that Vancouver subsequently lost 4-2.
Luongo was traded to the Florida Panthers two days later in a move that was widely speculated to have been precipitated by the snub, and the 35-year-old all but confirmed that to be the case on Tuesday at Rogers Arena ahead of Thursday’s homecoming against the Canucks.
“There’s no hiding it. I did want to play that game,” Luongo told reporters. “I mean that goes without saying, and if I would have played I probably would maybe still be here. Who knows?”
Chants of “Loo” rang out around B.C. Place back in March to protest the decision to start Lack, but Luongo said he didn’t feel “disrespected” by the organization or Tortorella â€” who was fired following one disastrous season that saw Vancouver miss the playoffs for the first time in six years.
“I feel like whatever the hand you’re dealt you have to deal with it the best that you can,” said Luongo. “Maybe earlier in my career I would have used those terms, but I don’t think it’s appropriate.
“I don’t think I’m owed anything.”
Thursday’s game will be Luongo’s first in Vancouver since the trade and he touched on a number of memorable moments at his press conference, including winning gold for Canada at the 2010 Olympics and the run to Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup.
“I enjoyed my time here. It was great,” said Luongo. “I’m just disappointed I wasn’t able to bring a Cup here. I think this market wants one more than anything, and if anything that’s the main thing that I’m disappointed about.
He later added: “The positives definitely outweigh the few negative things that happened.”
Most of those negatives occurred after the Cup final and included a goalie circus with Cory Schneider, demanding a trade, stating that his US$64-million, 12-year contract “sucks” and seeing Schneider dealt away. Then there was his perhaps ill-advised and short-lived captaincy that lasted from 2008 until 2010.
Luongo went 19-16-6 with a 2.38 goals-against average and .917 save percentage in his final season with Vancouver and won at least 30 games in six of his eight campaigns here, including two of more than 40 wins. Although he came across as aloof in the media and fans often criticized his play on the ice and demeanour off it, teammates loved his passion and drive.
“I think he was maybe misunderstood a little bit for a lot of people. He just wanted to win,” said Canucks forward Alexandre Burrows. “That’s the most important thing. For him to prepare and wanting to win, sometimes he might have done things that media didn’t like or fans didn’t like.
“But at the end of the day he wanted to be a real pro and win every game that he played. As a teammate he was great.”
Luongo â€” who doesn’t blame former Canucks president and general manager Mike Gillis for how things unfolded â€” said he could have dealt with the spotlight better early in his Vancouver tenure after he was originally acquired from Florida back in 2006.
“I think sometimes you have to go through some adversity to realize and understand and do the right things,” he said. “Just my whole perspective on a lot of stuff has changed over the last couple of years, the way I handle things. (I) just try and have as much fun as I can out there realizing that I’m 35 now.
“I just want to have fun playing the game and play hard and do the best I can.”
For all the heat directed his way, Luongo left Vancouver as a popular player in the city and the feeling is that sentiment remains.
“There’s a few things, the way I handled certain situations, that I wasn’t happy with,” said Luongo. “I’m happy that people were able to see who I really am and the way I am away from the cameras and around the guys and all that kind of stuff. It did feel good for people to see what kind of person I am.”
He added that there was a period before last season’s stunning trade that brought forward Shawn Matthias and minor-league goalie Jacob Markstrom to Vancouver where he was resigned to the fact that he wouldn’t be moved because of his contract.
“I was just trying to focus on playing here and see what came up as far as teams and trades,” said Luongo. “At the end of the day everything happens for a reason and I guess that’s just the way it had to work out.”
Luongo has the young Panthers in a hunt for the playoffs in the Eastern Conference and sports a 15-7-7 record to go along with a .924 save percentage, a 2.28 goals-against average and two shutouts so far this season.
“I’m just trying to be in the moment. We’re doing pretty well as a team,” said Luongo, who dropped a 4-3 shootout decision to Vancouver in Sunrise, Fla., a few weeks after the trade. “It was a little bit unknown with all the new faces coming into the season. We had a lot of young guys, new coach.
“We’re really close to being a really good team. That’s what my focus is on.”
Luongo said he isn’t sure what kind of reception to expect from fans on Thursday night in his old stomping grounds, but joked that both will be familiar.
“Loos and boos, they all sound the same so I won’t be able to tell the difference,” he said with a smile. “Hopefully a good (reaction) but that’s not up to me. Either way I just want to enjoy the game.”
Follow @JClipperton_CP on Twitter