Sorry, this post has been delayed. We’ve been celebrating Lord Stanley for two straight weeks. Here goes our official recount… as we recall.
Walking into a stadium felt odd. After all, it’s been almost a full calendar year since any of us sports fans have done so.
After partying hard ever since our cherished Tampa Bay Lightning won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in sixteen years, BCole and I scored tickets to the final of what turned out to be many Stanley Cup celebrations. Note: They’re still going on but this was the big one.
After traveling through city by trolley, complete with roster, family, coaching staff and the guest of honor, Lord Stanley’s Cup, the Bolts returned home to Amalie Arena for a limited engagement the day right after they won professional sports most prized possession. It was an understandably private event with only team employees and local dignitaries in the crowd. After a grueling two months away, all of them agreed it was good to be home.
Wednesday, the city planned a river parade, I suppose to prevent too many fans from congregating in one area. Like a little pandemic was going to keep us from welcoming back the reigning NHL champions after such a long wait.
After bumping around the bay on boats and jet skis with the Stanley Cup in hand (yes, Alex Killorn was doing just that!), players were transported to the piece de resistance, a welcome home party at Raymond James Stadium, home of another Tampa team that hopes to follow in the Lightning’s footsteps by bringing home their second ever championship.
Some 16,000 rowdy Lightning fans piled into the stadium that night. Had it not been for limited seating thanks to COVID-19, the stadium would have been packed to the brim. From the sounds of the crowd, it sure as Stanley felt like Ray Jay was at max capacity.
The festivities started with a Lightning jacket-clad emcee riling up the already anticipatory crowd, then a slew of video montages from their championship season. As if we could ever get enough of those highlights.
The players, who had been pounding beer and booze on boats all day ended up at the celebration sauced, and sometimes scantily clad (see: Pat Maroon) which is pretty much what we would expect from hockey players kept in quarantine for so long.
Both the mayors of Tampa and St Petersburg addressed the crowd, as well as Lightning founder Phil Esposito, head coach Jon Cooper and team owner Jeff Vinik, who later was forced to slam a beer by elatedly wild man Nikita Kucherov. In fact, that was the only time anyone saw a beer in Kuch’s hand that was not attached to his own lips. Hey, he’s a Hart Trophy winner. He does what he wants.
One of the more moving moments of the ceremony came when Coach Coop brought his son on stage to tell the crowd that he hadn’t seen his dad in 65 days. Bubble life for these athletes is nothing we’ll ever understand. I guess we’ll just have to wait for the 30 for 30 to see what it was like. But watching the players react to being home was all we needed to see. By the hugs and cheers, smiles and tears, it was evident why this Stanley Cup might just have meant more than any other in history.
After those particulars, it was the players’ turn to speak. Fan favorite and long-time Lightning player Alex Killorn hit the stage, then the shirtless, scarved and fedora-wearing Pat Maroon, the gentle giant of a defenseman (and playoff MVP) Victor Hedman and the team’s beloved captain Steven Stamkos. Few approached the dais without embrace… and being force-fed beer by teammate Nikita Kucherov.
You could feel the love that night, on the stage and in the crowd as the fans paid a well-deserved tribute to the players who made them proud. This is not a team or a franchise that needs vindication for playing hockey in a southern town. Esposito reminded us of exactly what he envisioned when he brought hockey here twenty-five some odd years ago, how Tampa would attract players who wanted to play for a championship team. Clearly the guy knew what he was talking about.
Welcome home, Lightning! ‘Tis our year to celebrate! Cheers to doing it all over again next season, here at home, where the fans will get to watch!