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Frank Seravalli

TSN Senior Hockey Reporter

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“Tampa has asked to do it a little bit different this year,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said before presenting Lord Stanley’s silver chalice - and, well, who could argue? 

It is 2020, after all.

And so, the Bolts bound around Bettman before he passed the Stanley Cup to captain Steven Stamkos and for one brief second the Tampa Bay Lightning captured an iconic moment together.

Pyrotechnics exploded as Stamkos effortlessly hoisted 34.5 lbs of heaven that wiped away five years of failure and one of hockey’s most embarrassing defeats. For an entire year, Tampa Bay wore the stink of being the first President’s Trophy winner to be swept in the first round.

They are now the first team ever to respond from a first-round sweep to win the Stanley Cup the next year.

“Basically, we went from the outhouse to the penthouse,” coach Jon Cooper said.

Admittedly, there was nothing that felt normal or looked normal about the first-ever Stanley Cup celebration in September. There was no roar of the fans and too few tear-jerking hugs from family members on the ice, the raw emotion of the culmination of a boy’s dream.

Instead, Lightning players and staff skated around with their phones, FaceTiming family and friends to share their 2-0 clinching win over the Dallas Stars that came some 361 days after the season started.

Even Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik joined the party in the dressing room via FaceTime on Cooper’s phone, telling his team: “Awesome job. Unbelievable effort. Dominant throughout the entire playoffs. You deserve it. We are so excited to see you guys tomorrow.”

But the tell-tale exception was the absence of boos for Bettman.

It was appropriate because on this night, in that surreal bubble, Bettman and the entire NHL events staff deserved only stick taps for completing a lab experiment that seemed so improbable six months earlier.

The NHL designed and executed a protocol strict enough to avoid a single positive COVID-19 detection among more than 33,000 daily tests on 24 teams worth of players and staff members over an eight-week period to play hockey in two bubbles on opposite sides of Canada.

Think about where it began. The Lightning were the first team to have their practice facility shut down in mid-June because of an outbreak with multiple players and staff testing positive.

They pulled it off, avoiding the fate engraved on Lord Stanley’s collar from the 1919 Spanish Flu pandemic that still reads: “SERIES NOT COMPLETED.”

Instead, staring down a similar pandemic a century later, it will say: “2019-20 TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING,” with 50 or so deserving players and staff etched alongside - and not a single asterisk anywhere in sight. 

Stars forward Tyler Seguin called the last two months in the bubble “the hardest time of our lives as professional athletes."

Make no mistake, this was maybe the toughest test in the history of the toughest trophy to win in sports. The physical grind was the same, maybe even more so having to ramp up again after an unprecedented 142-day pause, and the mental mountain was more difficult to climb with almost all outside world freedoms taken away for two months, isolated from family and friends.

Rather than isolate from each other, NHL players used the time together to engage in difficult conversation, halting the playoffs for two days in August in a show of solidarity against systemic racism. The image of players of all colors and backgrounds standing shoulder-to-shoulder during a press conference was the enduring image of the bubble.

“This is a very difficult situation to live in for nine weeks,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said. “It is groundhog day. It’s different without the crowd, but still, when you’re competing for the Stanley Cup, it doesn’t matter where you are. It doesn’t matter the risk, it doesn’t matter the conditions.”

To win required total commitment, which is something the Lightning demonstrated during even the most uncertain times. Even in the early stages of the pause, with the season in serious peril, messages popped into Tampa Bay’s group chat like: “This is our year, stay hungry,” or “We’re going to win the Stanley Cup this year. Stick with it.”

What followed was a concerted effort from nearly every player in the bubble, from Stamkos’ 2:47 of glory to veterans Luke Schenn or Braydon Coburn chipping in on defence when called upon to rookie Alexander Volkov making his career playoff debut in Game 6.

“It’s been a grind,” said Victor Hedman, who took home the Conn Smythe Trophy in one of the tightest races ever. “It hasn’t been easy, but it’s all worth it now. We’re Stanley Cup champs and we’re going to be Stanley Cup champs forever. It’s going to be in history. Our grandkids can look at the Stanley Cup and see our names.

“It’s been different, 24 teams came in and we’re standing as the last team. It’s amazing.”

If the celebration felt different, it was fitting because the Lightning did it differently.

GM Julien BriseBois didn’t blow up the homegrown Bolts after a historic collapse. After a trip to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and two other Conference Final appearances, he stuck with Cooper - the longest-tenured NHL coach - who has now won at every level (NAHL, USHL, AHL and NHL) since leaving his career as a Michigan lawyer. Proof: A coach need not always be axed.

“A heartbreak,” Cooper said, when asked what made Tampa Bay ready to win. Cooper wore a University of Virginia hat postgame, drawing inspiration from their basketball team that became the first 16-seed to lose in March Madness.

Cooper reunited with Pat Maroon, who we believe became the first player to win back-to-back Cups with different teams since Claude Lemieux did it with the New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche in 1995 and 1996. Maroon, along with Kevin Shattenkirk fresh off a buyout, joined up with trade deadline acquisitions Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Zach Bogosian to bolster the Bolts’ bulk to be better suited for Big Boy Hockey.

All they did along the way was play the most overtime minutes (221:15) of any team ever in a single playoff run, went 7-0 following a loss, allowed two goals or fewer an astonishing 16 times and completed 12 one-goal victories. Andrei Vasilevskiy saw every shot over every single second of the postseason; Only two defencemen in history (Brian Leetch and Paul Coffey) netted more goals in one playoff than Hedman’s 10 in the bubble.

Asterisk? Not a chance.

“It was special this year, to do it in the style we did it,” Stamkos said. “It was amazing to be part of it, this whole run. I think it was one of the toughest championships to win and we found a way.”

Contact Frank Seravalli on Twitter: @frank_seravalli