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NHL's Cup runneth over in wake of bubble triumph

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos is presented the

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos is presented the Stanley Cup from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman after defeating the Dallas Stars i in Edmonton, Alberta, on Monday, Sept. 28, 2020.  Credit: AP/Jason Franson

Somehow, 2020 got even weirder on Monday night.

First, NHL commissioner and Half Hollow Hills High alumnus Gary Bettman was not booed before presenting the Stanley Cup to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

OK, fine, if you want to be nitpicky about it, there were no fans in the arena in Edmonton to boo him, a longstanding Cup Final tradition among NHL fans.

But still: The non-booing was in keeping with a great night for Bettman.

Fans, journalists and assorted hockey people wrote more nice things about him on social media platforms in the 45 minutes after the Lightning’s clincher over the Dallas Stars than they had in the rest of the century combined.

And it was not just Bettman. The achievement of making the NHL the first major North American pro team sports league to cross the COVID-19 finish line – with no positive tests in sight – was monumental and multi-faceted.

So kudos to everyone involved, from the players, coaches and executives to the virus-testers, support staff, television partners and cities of Toronto and Edmonton.

And special props to Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper, who became the first former Hofstra lacrosse player to lead a team to hockey’s biggest prize.

(Side note regarding the Islanders: The last three times they got at least as far as the conference finals, in 1984, 1993 and 2020, they were eliminated by the eventual Stanley Cup champions.)

The fact the Lightning closed out the Final in six games on Monday saved the NHL from awkward scheduling for a potential Game 7 on Wednesday.

While Game 6 was up against a "Monday Night Football" matchup between Kansas City and Baltimore, Game 7 would have been the same day as eight Major League Baseball playoff games and Game 1 of the NBA Finals. That would have been a tough landscape for hockey’s grand finale.

At least the NHL season ended before Oct. 2, which would have marked a full calendar year since it began.

So everyone came a long way from late May, when Bettman’s video news conference from home announcing the league’s return-to-play plan was interrupted by noise from his 3-year-old grandson and a barking dog.

His postgame remarks on Monday were longer – and easier to hear – than usual after a Cup clincher, and were on target.

"I know everybody here misses your families back in Tampa and you can’t wait to see them," he said, "and we miss having our fans in the building. We have the greatest fans in the world. Our game gets incredible energy from you, and we can’t wait to have you back."

Then, after inviting the players to gather around him, he said this:

"There’s no harder championship to win. The gantlet that you have to run to hoist this trophy is unbelievable, and never more unbelievable than this year. 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 the record books as perhaps the hardest run of all time. You guys should all be incredibly proud. This has been an amazing accomplishment. It is my honor to present the Stanley Cup to [captain] Steven Stamkos."

With that, the Lightning prepared to leave their protective bubble at last and fly diagonally across the continent to return to Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis last week lifted all COVID-19 restrictions on businesses.

The celebration is scheduled for Wednesday, featuring a boat parade along the Tampa Riverwalk, followed by a rally at Raymond James Stadium.

Ninety or so miles away in Orlando, the Lakers will be opening the NBA Finals against the Heat. So LeBron’s got next, but the NHL got it done first.

New York Sports