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‘Such a pro’: At 39, Roberto Luongo still chasing the Cup

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CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. (AP) — Roberto Luongo has an arena named after him. He has made roughly $100 million in career earnings, knows he is headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame one day, ranks among the sport’s all-time leaders in virtually every goaltending category. And in a true testament to Luongo’s popularity, the Twitter account of his alter ego even has close to a million followers.

His legacy was secure long ago.

He doesn’t need to play anymore.

Yet here he is, regularly arriving at the Florida Panthers’ training facility even before coach Bob Boughner on most mornings, spending more time getting ready for his daily workout than most people do on their actual workouts, not partaking in any hobbies during the season because he wants nothing to take away from his focus, still seeking any tiny way to make himself just a little better in net. His save percentage, in a season when he turned 39, was higher than the one when he turned 29. Or the one when he turned 19, for that matter.

Luongo is still driven, primarily for one reason – he’s never hoisted the Stanley Cup, the grail he wants most.

”He just prepares better than anybody I’ve ever seen at that position and that age,” Boughner said. ”He’s just such a pro.”

The Panthers will gather Thursday for their preseason media day and some off-ice matters, then open training camp on Friday. They were one of the hottest teams in the NHL in the second half of last season, and wound up missing the playoffs by a point in another woebegone chapter for the franchise that hasn’t qualified for the postseason in 15 of the last 17 years and hasn’t won a playoff series since 1996.

Hope springs eternal, Luongo believes, and once again he’s arriving for the start of the season expecting to win the final game.

”Guys are maturing and understanding the game more and more every year,” Luongo said. ”Hopefully we’re ready, right off the bat.”

This season presents a dichotomy of sorts: Florida is a team that thinks its talented young core – Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Matheson and Jonathan Huberdeau are all 25 or less – is just getting started. Luongo is a goalie who is nearing the proverbial finish. Yet even with James Reimer on the roster, and Reimer will play plenty, Luongo is the goalie they will rely upon from the outset on opening night.

”I just love the game,” Luongo said. ”I feel that I enjoy it more now than when I was a little bit younger. I’m more mature, understand things a little bit better, more focused on enjoying my time and not so much focused on other things that maybe aren’t under my control, which I used to do earlier on in my career that I kind of regret now.”

He didn’t use the word Vancouver, because it was obvious. After his first stint in Florida ended in 2006 Luongo spent eight years with the Canucks, lost a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final with them – in Vancouver, no less – and eventually wound up getting traded back to the Panthers. He was miserable toward the end of his time in Vancouver, lost his starting job and the $64 million, 12-year contract he signed in 2009 was an easy target for critics.

In Florida, he’s happy.

”It took some bad things to happen for me to learn, but usually that’s how things work,” Luongo said. ”You get back up, you learn from it and you get stronger. Feels like a really long time ago, but those were also some of the best years of my career. Everything happens for a reason. You learn and you move on.”

Luongo comes into this season with 471 wins, fourth-most in history, 13 away from matching No. 3 Ed Belfour. He has 27,326 saves – 1,602 away from matching Martin Brodeur for the most in NHL history. Back home in Canada, he has an arena where he used to play that now bears his name, just like Brodeur does. He’s also quick to point out that he’s among the NHL career loss leaders, with 376, 21 shy of tying Brodeur for the league record.

”Take that, Marty,” Luongo shouted.

That’s the self-deprecating humor that he’s needed to develop, and is often in full display on his Twitter account Strombone.

On there, he has asked the Stanley Cup who it was. He has called himself a dinosaur. When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series and gave a ring to Steve Bartman – who achieved infamy in the 2003 playoffs by snaring a foul ball against the Florida Marlins – Luongo pointed out that he even trails Bartman in that category now.

”I just want to keep it light,” Luongo said. ”Kind of a way for me to be myself.”

Light off the ice, all business on the ice.

He was healthy this offseason, a change from the last couple years, and that allowed him to spend much more time honing and much less time rehabbing. He took about a week or two off after last season, forced himself to watch some of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and believes he’s ready for the grind that awaits.

The Cup is out there. And he’s running out of time to get his fingerprints on the chalice.

”Lu’s done everything but win the Cup,” Boughner said. ”He knows this is a big year for this team. And Lu, when he’s at the top of his game, he’s still a top-10 goalie in this league.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

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Under Pressure: Mike Hoffman

James van Riemsdyk on fatherhood, Flyers/NHL returning, and more

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Flyers winger James van Riemsdyk took a moment out of his day/put his car in park to chat with Mike Tirico on “Lunch Talk Live” on Friday. You can watch the full video above this post’s headline.

JVR didn’t do much to peel back the curtain on return-to-play issues, but he provided some useful information nonetheless.

  • Maybe most relevantly, JVR told Tirico that he’ll be close to 100 percent if the Flyers actually get to return to play. Van Riemsdyk injured his finger back in March.

JVR and Tirico didn’t really go into this, but the 31-year-old winger was heating up toward the end of 2019-20. Things didn’t start that smoothly, as Van Riemsdyk only managed five goals and 11 points through his first 17 games. Considering the $7M per year investment the Flyers made, JVR probably heard some grumbles.

But he played some of his best hockey with a still-fairly-new team before the injury and the pandemic struck. JVR scored 29 of his season’s 40 points (and 14 of his 19 goals) through the last 39 games. An updated version of Bill Comeau’s SKATR chart captures how much better JVR has been overall in 2019-20 after a disappointing return season with Philly:

JVR SKATR
via Bill Comeau

As disruptive as the pandemic has been, it had to be nice for JVR to be there for such a life event. An eager Tirico also learned that JVR’s child already has Gritty slippers.

(Please send Gritty slippers. I’m already quite googly-eyed from quarantining, anyway. At least my belly button doesn’t change colors [yet] though.)

  • He didn’t elaborate much, but JVR hinted that players prefer reseeding over a bracketed playoff format.

Really, though, the low-fi nature of the video pushes it to another level. Few things humanize a person quite like doing an interview in a parking lot. (Been there, JVR, been there. Kind of.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

USA Hockey president Jim Smith facing investigations

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — USA Hockey president Jim Smith is the subject of two investigations surrounding his tenure as the president of Amateur Hockey Association Illinois.

USA Hockey spokesman Dave Fischer confirmed Friday that the organization has hired an independent investigator to look into Smith’s business dealings with AHAI. Fischer also said the US Center for SafeSport is investigating allegations that Smith was aware of sexual misconduct by a coach and didn’t take action against him during Smith’s tenure with AHAI.

The Athletic first reported on the two investigations.

Fischer said the US Center for SafeSport’s investigation is regarding allegations that were made against Thomas Adrahtas, a youth hockey coach. The Athletic reported in February that multiple players said Adrahtas had abused them.

The US Center for SafeSport said in a statement that ”consistent with best practices and federal law, the Center does not discuss matters to protect the integrity of the process and the privacy of the parties and any potential witnesses.”

Smith couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. He told The Athletic through a spokesperson earlier this month that ”in my time as president of AHAI, there were no reports alleging misconduct by Tom Adrahtas.”

Founded in 1937, USA Hockey is an organization focused on the support and development of grass-roots hockey programs. Smith was unanimously elected as president by the organization’s board of directors in 2015. He was unanimously re-elected in 2018.

Ducks’ offensive woes extend to rare 2-year playoff drought

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ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — The last time the Anaheim Ducks missed the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, they went all the way to their franchise’s first Stanley Cup Final just one year later.

Not many observers expect the current Ducks to duplicate the feats of those beloved 2002-03 Mighty Ducks after they complete another long offseason made even longer by the coronavirus pandemic.

These Ducks are still in full rebuilding mode after winning just 29 of their 71 games this season, including a Western Conference-worst 24 non-shootout victories. The Ducks were in sixth place in the Pacific Division standings primarily on the sturdy strength of goalies John Gibson and Ryan Miller, who bailed out their teammates all winter long.

Just three years after the Ducks reached the conference finals for the second time in three seasons, a long road back to Cup contention appears to loom in Orange County. Anaheim got largely disappointing performances from its collection of forwards – a star-free group outside captain Ryan Getzlaf – and the blue line was inconsistent while coach Dallas Eakins worked young talent into the lineup amid injuries and trade departures.

But during a second straight season without a playoff appearance – matching their total playoff-less seasons over the previous 13 years combined – Eakins and general manager Bob Murray saw signs of the team they want the Ducks to become. They’ll have an extra-long offseason to contemplate the next steps to get there.

”While we would have preferred to conclude our season normally and play 82 games, it became obvious over time that was not practical,” Murray said this week. ”We remain excited about our future and can’t wait for the 2020-21 season.”

SELDOM SCORING

Perhaps appropriately for a team with a long-standing reputation as an intimidating, defense-first organization, the Ducks’ biggest problems during their two-year playoff drought have been all about offense. Eakins was hired last summer to implement a speed-based system designed to produce more scoring opportunities, but it’s just not happening yet.

One season after Anaheim finished last in the NHL in goals, its minus-39 goal differential this season was the conference’s worst. Anaheim scored two or fewer regulation goals in a whopping 39 of its 71 games. Only Adam Henrique (26 goals) and Jakob Silfverberg (21) found the net with any frequency.

The Ducks’ problems ranged from Rickard Rakell‘s two-year regression to the disappointing numbers from youngsters who weren’t ready to produce at the highest level. Murray also curiously gave up on Ondrej Kase and Daniel Sprong in February, trading two young forwards with clear NHL-caliber scoring ability when they didn’t produce enough for his liking.

IN THE CREASE

Gibson and Miller didn’t post impressive statistics, but anybody who watched these Ducks knew their most valuable players were between the pipes. Gibson’s game has grown and matured even while his team has regressed, and the 39-year-old Miller still shows no drop-off in his abilities. If Miller decides to return for another NHL season, he’ll have the chance to pass Dominik Hasek on the NHL’s career victories list – and the Ducks won’t have to worry about this vital position for another year.

DROP THE BALLS

The Ducks have an 8.5% chance of getting the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL’s complicated draft lottery. Anaheim hasn’t had a top-five draft pick since 2005, when it snagged Bobby Ryan with the second overall choice. Murray and his scouting department have a long history of finding impressive talent outside the first round, but they’ll likely have the opportunity to choose a game-changing star this summer for the first time. The Ducks also have Boston’s first-round pick from their trade of Kase.

DARK BLUE LINE

Anaheim’s collection of defensemen appears to be thoroughly average, and none seems likely to get much better. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are solid pros, but they’re likely past the points in their development where they could become stars. The Ducks could use an injection of game-changing talent on the blue line.

GETTING BUCKETS

Linemates Henrique and Silfverberg bucked their team’s offensive struggles with a pair of impressive seasons, and they’ll be a foundation of the rebuilding effort. Henrique was particularly productive, leading the roster with 43 points. They’re both locked into long-term contracts.

GETZ BACK

The 35-year-old Getzlaf will head into the final season of his contract later this year when he begins his 16th season with Anaheim. The playmaker still racked up 29 assists this season despite finishing the year on a line with Danton Heinen and Sonny Milano, two 24-year-old recent additions with a combined 59 career NHL goals. It’s a long way down from his heyday with Corey Perry, but Getzlaf appears eager to keep working on the Ducks’ rebuilding project.

Supporters quickly raise $500K to try to save Alabama-Huntsville hockey program

UAH Hockey University of Alabama-Huntsville logo $500K
via UAH Chargers
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Mere days after it looked like the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s hockey program was going to get cut, supporters raised a whopping $500K in hopes of keeping the UAH program alive.

With another $500K expected to come from boosters, the University of Alabama-Huntsville men’s ice hockey program reached the seemingly unrealistic goal of $1M to try to avoid the end of a program that stretches back four decades.

UAH supporters drove that $500K by combining a Go Fund Me account with T-shirt sales.

Now, this doesn’t outright guarantee the continuation of UAH’s men’s program.

“[School president Darren Dawson] did make us a verbal commitment that if you get to that number, we’ll make it happen,” former UAH player Sheldon Wolitski told AL.com. “We’re hoping he’s going to honor his word. We were asking for a formal statement from him to say that. It would be a shame to put all this effort and we raise it and he doesn’t follow through.”

Even if school officials stick to that verbal commitment, there are some hurdles to clear.

Not the first time the UAH men’s ice hockey program has been saved

Paul Gattis (also of AL.com) argues that the UAH men’s ice hockey program needs more than just money to survive. This is not, after all, the first time that this program needed saving. It was teetering on being canceled back in 2011 before victory was snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Even so, it’s pretty remarkable, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Does it justify comparing UAH officials to “Dr. Evil?” I’d zip it on that one.)

Those fighting for the UAH men’s ice hockey program aim to preserve something quite unusual, as Joseph Goodman noted as fundraising intensified:

UAH hockey is the only NCAA Division I hockey program in the South. How cool is that? It’s one of one — a singular, special thing just like the city it skates for and represents.

Will we see this program survive after giving Cam Talbot and others the chance to chase their dreams? It seems a lot more likely after an eventful week.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.