When the NHL first announced its Return to Play Plan on May 26th, it seemed ambitious of the league to think that they could be able to complete the 2019-2020 season, even using the two-bubble concept.
It started to seem more questionable when the both the Tampa Bay Lightning and the St. Louis Blues had to temporarily close their training facilities in mid-June during Phase 2 of the plan when several players and staffers tested positive for Covid-19.
Moving into Phase 3, the official start of training camps in the 24 teams’ home facilities, only two of the 2,618 tests administered to more than 800 players between July 13th and July 17th came up positive, a pretty impressive feat as the virus was surging in states such as Florida, Texas, and Arizona.
Fifty-one days ago, the puck dropped at noon eastern in Toronto for the first game of qualifiers when the New York Rangers took on the Carolina Hurricanes. Still, there was that uncertainty even in the isolation of the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles if they could pull it off. But as the weeks went on, and the weekly testing continued to return no positive tests, those tentative gloves-on fist- and elbow-bumps gave way to the more traditional handshake lines.
Fifty-one days with no positive tests and down to one bubble, it looks like the NHL will pull off what seemed so audacious and potentially impossible three months ago, as the Stanley Cup Final between the Dallas Stars and the Tampa Bay Lightning gets started Saturday night.
There are certainly plenty of storylines to go around. The Lightning, heavy favorites to represent the East, came into the 2020 postseason with plenty to prove after 0being swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the first round in 2019 after an historic season. Rick Bowness, who took over behind the Stars bench after Jim0 Montgomery was let go, coaching against the same Lightning that fired him two years ago (Bowness had been on the Lightning staff when they last reached the Final in 2015). It’s the first time in NHL history that a head coach and his former assistant coach are competing against each other for the Cup. Another first for the Final, two Russian goaltenders will be going head-to-head. Had Ben Bishop been healthy, the goaltending matchup would have been just as intriguing, as Bishop had been the starting goalie for the Bolts for their 2015 run.
It will certainly be a final like no other. As a fan, there’s nothing like the excitement of going to the arena on a final game day, the anticipation of watching the action unfold right in front of you. For the players, there will not be that chance to celebrate with the fans as would be the norm when the Cup is won on home ice; there will not be that chance to celebrate with family. While the NHL planned to bring families into the bubble, the closures at the Canadian border and the quarantine guidelines have made it difficult. As of this writing, only the wife and 5-month-old daughter of the Stars’ Justin Dowling has made it in. It is expected that several other Stars will have spouses and family members who are already in Canada joining them. But it won’t be that full complement of friends and family that would share in that winning moment under normal circumstances.
Perhaps that has been the biggest sacrifice of all in all of this has been separation from family. How many first words and first steps might have been missed in those two months? Partners trying to hold down the fort and essentially be single parents during the time. Leo Komarov missed the birth of his child, which occurred on the same day the New York Islanders were eliminated by the Lightning. One just has to watch the videos and see the photos of players reuniting with their children upon returning home from the bubble to remember that while they might be wealthy athletes who were put up in hotels in a few weeks for our entertainment, they are human beings who did make personal sacrifices to do so.
Three months ago, there were people out there who were labeling this the “COVID Cup” and claiming that, because of the format, the winner would have to live with an asterisk. Whichever team winds up hoisting the Stanley Cup come the end of September, these playoffs should be remembered for the Herculean feat that the league, its staff, and all of its players managed to pull off in getting through Phase 4 without one single positive Covid test.