It has been nearly a year since the NHL’s 2019-20 regular season began. It has been more than six months since the league suspended play as the novel coronavirus swept across the globe. But Monday, in a bubble in Edmonton, the NHL finally wrapped up its pandemic-challenged year with the Tampa Bay Lightning lifting the Stanley Cup.
Sixty-five days after teams entered the hub cities of Edmonton and Toronto for the postseason, the league pulled off a feat that seemed close to unthinkable when the stoppage began.
“The gantlet that you have to run to hoist this trophy is unbelievable and even more unbelievable this year,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said before presenting the Stanley Cup to Tampa Bay. “These guys have been away from home for more than two months. This has been the ultimate team effort. This Stanley Cup run will go down in record books as perhaps the hardest run of all time.”
Back in May, when Bettman announced the league’s return-to-play plan, the NHL faced its fair share of criticism coming off a lengthy pause.
There were questions about the health and safety of the players and teams involved in the modified Stanley Cup playoffs, about the ethical and moral implications of trying to restart amid a pandemic, and about the sacrifice from players and team personnel, who were going to be away from families for a considerable amount of time.
“At the end of the day, it is the entertainment business and that is what we do,” Washington Capitals winger Tom Wilson said in mid-July. “We are being asked to come back and play. So I don’t have too much of an opinion on it. I want to play. I want to provide games for people to watch, and hopefully everyone enjoys them.”
Players were to undergo daily coronavirus tests, symptom checks and temperature screenings while in the hub cities. The NHL secured coronavirus tests from two companies, which both assured the league that they had excess capacity and the games would not be taking away tests from the public.
There were no reported issues regarding testing or timeliness of results. Players involved in the effort described their experience as largely safe, with Capitals winger Carl Hagelin saying being in the bubble was the safest he felt since the season was suspended in March.
The NHL played 130 games in 59 days since Aug. 1 and appears to have accomplished that feat safely.
“It’s remarkable, actually, that this has gone on,” Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper said. “Give the players credit for the quality of play and how intense the game is. … I can’t say enough about how this has gone on. It’s impressive how it’s been pulled off.”
On Monday, the NHL released its second-to-last coronavirus testing update from the bubble, which stated it had administered 33,174 tests since teams arrived in Edmonton and Toronto on July 26. In that span, there were no positive results.
The health and safety questions remained at the forefront, but there also was talk about an asterisk for the Stanley Cup winners. They would have won under unprecedented circumstances but would not have faced a typical postseason, so would it even count?
But Monday, the Lightning celebrated its second championship in franchise history, and injured captain Steven Stamkos came out in full uniform to hoist the Cup as his teammates erupted with joy. It appeared the answer to that question was a resounding yes.
“It takes a lot to be in a bubble for 80 days or whatever long it was,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. “But it’s all worth it now: We’re coming home with the Cup.”
The postseason will be remembered as equal parts surprising, entertaining, nerve-racking and heartbreaking as it was successful. And as the days turned to weeks and then months in the hub cities, the games evolved and the quality improved.
Memorable moments came and went in waves as up to six games were being played per day in the early stages. There was a thrilling, five-overtime game between Tampa Bay and Columbus. And in early August, employees in the bubble threw hats on the ice in celebration of a hat trick by the Edmonton Oilers’ Connor McDavid.
It all led up to Monday’s triumphant moment — and finally the bubble has burst.
“This was a very difficult situation to live in for nine-plus weeks,” Dallas interim coach Rick Bowness said. “It is Groundhog Day, but … when you’re competing for the Stanley Cup it doesn’t matter the rink. It doesn’t matter the conditions. You’re still competing for the Stanley Cup. It’s been well worth it.”
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