The Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup celebration was a lonely one. There were no fans involved except for the ones shown on the big screens. There were few family members present, leading many players to try and bring them onto the ice virtually, through video calls on their phones. There was, unsurprisingly, a general emptiness to the proceedings, which, rather than detract from the team’s achievement, actually seemed to magnify it.
These players and staffers had spent more than two months away from their loved ones—away from anything besides exercise and each other, really—all to play 25 hockey games in the middle of a pandemic and hoist a hunk of silver at the end of it. Many made these sacrifices, most notably the defeated Dallas Stars, but only the Lightning’s group of guys could truly say that it was worth it. It has to be considered among the greatest team accomplishments in NHL history.
The Lightning’s final victory laps with the Cup were a fitting way to spotlight the players who got the least in return for what they gave to the bubble. Mathieu Joseph didn’t play at all but was there in case he was needed. Alexander Volkov played in exactly one game—the clincher. Braydon Coburn, the 35-year-old defenseman, gave experience to the Lightning in the locker room but only skated on a few nights. All of them, after weeks and weeks of sitting bored in hotels and watching their team’s games and likely feeling at least a little bit frustrated, got their moment with the Cup.
But a guy who appeared for less than three minutes of his team’s entire run got to touch it first. Steven Stamkos, the Lightning’s injured captain who’s spent 12 years with the team shoveling pucks into the net by the dozen, did not play in Game 6 but started putting his equipment on with four minutes to go and his team in control. To avoid a jinx, he stayed in the dressing room until the horn sounded, but when Gary Bettman called his name and Stamkos took that first lap, he felt just as critical to his team’s success as Conn Smythe winner Victor Hedman.
I’d list off Stamkos’s stat line for the postseason right here, but I couldn’t do it more concisely or profanely than Pat Maroon in the locker room following the win.
That “one goal, one shot”—more than Kevin Shattenkirk’s OT winner in Game 4 or the sudden-death goals that got the Lightning past the Jackets, Bruins, and Islanders—was the best moment of the Lightning’s season. Stamkos, like a superhero, suddenly appeared on the ice for the first period of Game 3 and gave his team both an incalculable emotional boost and a key goal in a 5-2 win, with a vintage wrist shot that he created mostly by himself. After giving over 800 games and nearly 450 goals to the Lightning, Stamkos should have been the one to lead their celebration no matter what he did this September, but his very real contribution made it feel all the more fitting.
There are guys all around the league who you could say “deserve” the Stanley Cup—Joe Pavelski in the losing locker room is certainly among them—but it just felt … good to see Stamkos so happy, so satisfied, so filled with love last night, in the middle of such a shitty year. Despite being one of the greatest Canadian players of his generation, Stamkos has never been able to play in the Olympics. The last time he tried to magically return from injury for a playoff appearance, his team lost Game 7 of the Conference Finals to the eventual champion Penguins. The team he’s captained since Marty St. Louis left in 2014 had been defined by disappointment and failure up until last night. He’d spent the last several weeks in isolation, both from the outside world and, also, from his comrades who were playing every night. But finally he’s going back to his life, and as a champion.
“These last six weeks have been really emotional for my family and I, not only on the ice but off the ice,” Stamkos said afterward. “I just want to say to my family: I love you guys so much. To all the friends and everyone who supported us along the way: We love you, we can’t wait to celebrate with you.”