With about two minutes to go in the third period, Commissioner Bettman nodded to the television. There were 18,110 fans on their feet, cheering, rattling noisemakers, anticipating a 1-0 win for the Tampa Bay Lightning against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.
“It’s great to have fans back,” he said. “It’ll be a pleasure to be booed.”
Commissioner Bettman had awarded the Cup to the Lightning in an empty arena in Edmonton less than 10 months before, the culmination of an unprecedented 24-team tournament played without fans in attendance in bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto.
Now he was about to award the Cup to the Lightning again to culminate another challenging season amid the coronavirus pandemic, only this time in a full arena.
With about 30 seconds left, he left the room, turned right, walked a few steps, then turned left and opened the metal door to the Zamboni area. The roar of the crowd hit him full blast.
He stepped through a black curtain and stood still for a moment, taking in the scene as workers scurried, the Lightning celebrated and the loudspeakers blared AC/DC’s classic “Thunderstruck.”
“GARE-EE!” a few fans chanted when they saw him waiting to take the ice. “GARE-EE!”
The Commissioner pulled off his mask, revealing a smile underneath.
“Mr. Bettman!” a fan yelled, trying to get his attention to take his picture. “Great season!”
Finally, it was time. Commissioner Bettman walked out on a blue carpet to award the Conn Smythe Trophy to Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, voted the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The fans booed.
“A full arena, incredible energy and another championship in Tampa,” Commissioner Bettman told the crowd. “It feels like things are normal.”
The fans cheered.
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The NHL has faced immense challenges since pausing the 2019-20 season March 12, 2020. The COVID-19 situation has evolved constantly. So has the response by medical officials and governments from city to city, country to country.
Through it all, the NHL has had two primary goals: Keep everyone as safe as possible and award the Stanley Cup with integrity.
Since Aug. 1, 2020, the NHL has administered more than 350,000 COVID-19 tests to players and staff. It had no positive tests in the 2020 postseason, but it wasn’t practical to play the 2020-21 season in bubbles.
The NHL shortened the regular season to 56 games, realigned temporarily to eliminate travel across the Canada-United States border until the Stanley Cup Semifinals, and adopted 12 COVID-19 protocols (that were updated more than two dozen times).
There were 12 teams shut down, 55 games postponed, 132 games rescheduled and more than 200 players on the COVID-19 list. At the highest point, Feb. 12, there were 59 players on the COVID-19 list. At the lowest points, including Wednesday, there were none.
Slowly, depending on the situation in each market, fans returned to arenas. Amalie Arena eventually reached full capacity.
“It took an incredible team effort by everybody at the clubs, supported by ownership, the League office and the players,” Commissioner Bettman said. “The players really had to put themselves out there both on and off the ice to get through this with all of our health and safety concerns. It was, for the ultimate team sport, the ultimate team effort.”
* * * * *
The process of awarding the Cup reflected the challenges of the season.
Each time a team potentially can clinch the Cup, the NHL holds a planning meeting the day of the game that includes departments across the League, because each moment must be choreographed, each detail checked. This year, even that meeting had to be done via video conference.
The NHL had to adhere to special COVID-19 protocols in both Montreal and Tampa to cross the Canada-United States border with a modified quarantine, under the national interest exemption Canada granted the League.
The Lightning had a chance to clinch the Cup in Game 4 at Bell Centre in Montreal on Monday. Commissioner Bettman left his suite with about 10 minutes to go in the third period as he usually does. Even though the Canadiens were leading 2-1 at the time, you never know. He bumped into Patrick Roy in the hallway, took an elevator down to the lowest level and then walked through what looked like a metal detector at an airport.
Only it wasn’t a metal detector. It was a disinfectant shower. Everyone coming that way had to walk through a fine spray of chemicals, even the Commissioner.
By the time Commissioner Bettman reached the staging area, the score was tied 2-2. He watched on television as the game went to overtime, pacing, rehearsing in his head what he would say if Tampa Bay won.
But the Lightning lost 3-2 in overtime, and so the NHL packed the Cup, essential personnel and rightsholders onto a charter plane for Tampa. The plane had to leave early Tuesday because it had to arrive ahead of Tropical Storm Elsa.
A tropical storm? At the Stanley Cup Final?
Well, the NHL had never played in July before.
“Think about playing in July in Florida,” Commissioner Bettman said. “What are the odds? As I said from the outset, you have to be flexible and agile, and you had to be prepared to do whatever was necessary.”
The storm passed, and here was Commissioner Bettman again Wednesday, leaving his suite with about 10 minutes left in the third period. This time, he didn’t have to go through a disinfectant shower. Still, protocols were in place. No family and friends would be allowed on the ice after the Cup presentation, as they would be in a normal year. No media, either.
After presenting the Conn Smythe, Commissioner Bettman retreated behind the black curtain for a moment. Out came the Stanley Cup. Commissioner Bettman followed behind. As he did last season in the bubble, he called up the entire Tampa Bay team before presenting it to captain Steven Stamkos.
“They did an incredible job as an incredible team,” Commissioner Bettman told the fans. “I speak for all of them when they say sharing this with you has been the highlight of this campaign and the back-to-back trophy. Thank you, fans here in Tampa.”
With that, Commissioner Bettman handed the Cup to Stamkos. As the players passed and paraded the Cup around the ice in front of the fans, he retreated behind the black curtain one more time. The roar of the crowd echoed backstage.
“This had, finally, a sense of normalcy,” Commissioner Bettman said, “and it felt good.”