It began 63 days ago and ended Monday night with a new NHL Stanley Cup champion.
When NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s Return to Play plan in May, there was lots of skepticism that we would see a conclusion to the 2019-20 season. The plan was to start August 1 and finish the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs in late September with bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton. It was a big challenge, but worth the effort.
“I don’t want to sound Pollyanna, but canceling is too easy a solution,” Bettman said in May.
When puck dropped on the Penguins-Flyers exhibition game July 28 from Scotiabank Arena, it was different. No crowd, piped in atmosphere, and plenty of uncertainty about how the following two months would go. But round after round confidence grew that this postseason would be completed without issue. Week after week the NHL announced their latest round of COVID-19 test results, and in total, 33,174 tests were given with not one returning positive.
Yet, Bettman held off on celebrating until it was his time to award the Cup to the winning team’s captain. He was able to do just that, posing for the annual photo at center ice inside Rogers Place — this year with Steven Stamkos of the Lightning.
“To be in this place, at this time under these circumstances is remarkable and frankly, overwhelming,” Bettman said before awarding Victor Hedman with the Conn Smythe Trophy and presenting the Cup. “It’s a testament to everybody that participated in our Return to Play and it’s a testament to a great Stanley Cup Final from the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars.”
The on-ice celebration, like everything else in life since March, was different. There was no raucous crowd celebrating with the players; no media on the ice grabbing postgame soundbites. It was like it had been for the last two months: the Lightning, altogether, taking part in a post-Cup tradition under unique circumstances.
What hadn’t changed were the emotions of winning. This postseason was a grind on everyone involved. The Stars and Lightning have been away from their families and inside bubbles since July. Hotel rooms became their home away from home. Video games, FaceTime calls, and the occasional time outside were highlights of off days. The road to the Cup Final was different, but when the players gave their thumbs up to the Return to Play plan they knew it wouldn’t be easy.
“I missed an anniversary, birthday, another one’s coming up, first day of school, hockey tournaments, my daughter making the swimming team, my other daughter going to her first dance class,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper last week. “Where do you want the list to go?”
“There won’t be one thing about bubble life I’m going to miss,” said Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness.
It’s over now. Six and a half months after the league and world paused, we finally have a 2019-20 NHL champion. The Lightning and Stars won’t ever forget this experience.
“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” said Hedman afterward. “But it’s all worth it now. We’re coming home with the Cup.”