“LET’S GO, BOLTS!” they chanted, rattling noisemakers. “LET’S GO, BOLTS!”
After the final horn, the Lightning returned the love, applauding and raising their sticks in salute to the 15,911 at Amalie Arena.
This was bigger than the game. This was about life starting to return to normal amid the coronavirus pandemic, a hockey community coming together in a way it couldn’t months ago.
“I think from the moment we stepped on the ice [to] the last minute where everyone was standing, I think our fans were phenomenal tonight and gave us momentum,” forward Yanni Gourde said. “We were flying because of them. I think it makes the game so much more fun having fans in the building compared to last year in the bubble.”
The Lightning won the Stanley Cup last season in an empty arena in Edmonton, a neutral site almost 3,000 miles from here.
In many ways, it was special.
It was arguably the hardest championship to win in the history of the NHL, with the 2019-20 season being paused March 12, 2020, and restarted with a unique 24-team tournament with no fans in the stands in Toronto and Edmonton from Aug. 1-Sept. 28.
The executives, coaches, players and staff members had only each other, living under strict protocols in bubbles. Coach Jon Cooper talked about how the hotel would empty as teams were eliminated.
The Lightning were the last to check out, along with the team they defeated in six games in the Cup Final, the Dallas Stars.
But it wasn’t the same. It wasn’t the way it was supposed to be. As Cooper said Monday morning, “Hockey’s meant to be played in front of fans.”
“That’s what the game’s all about, is sharing it with your community and feeling that energy and excitement,” forward Blake Coleman said.
The Lightning revealed their Stanley Cup banner Jan. 13 in an empty Amalie Arena as the League embarked on a 2020-21 season amid the ongoing pandemic — 56 games, temporarily realigned divisions, more protocols.
But they didn’t raise the banner to the rafters, because they wanted to wait for the fans.
“When the time is right,” Stamkos said that night, “we’re looking forward to having the fans back.”
The time came March 13, when the Lightning were allowed to have 3,800 fans in the stands under local regulations and NHL protocols.
Late in the regular season, the attendance grew to 4,200. As the Stanley Cup Playoffs progressed, so did the attendance, from 9,508 to 9,762 to 10,092 to 13,544 to 13,773 to 14,513 to 14,771 to 14,791 to 14,805.
Behind the scenes, the protocols remain for health and safety. Amalie Arena is divided into red, yellow and green zones, keeping people apart based on their status under the protocols. Reporters are not allowed on the event level, let alone in the locker rooms. All interviews are via video conference.
But 2 ½ hours before Game 1, thousands of fans already had descended upon Thunder Alley, the plaza outside Amalie Arena.
“We still have some work to do, and caution remains prudent,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said as he began his annual press conference before Game 1 of the Cup Final. “But what is going on outside and the atmosphere that our fans will produce when they enter this arena are vivid signs that we are getting there, that the return to normalcy we all crave and worked to achieve for the last 15 months is actually drawing closer.”
The Lightning began their pregame show with images of fans projected on the gigantic video screen, the ice and sheets of fabric suspended from the rafters. The fans waved glow sticks, rattled noisemakers and roared.
“BOLT NATION,” the emcee shouted, “WE HAVE WAITED TWO YEARS FOR THIS VERY MOMENT!”
Former Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier hit the button to spark the lightning from the Tesla coils in the rafters, and the fans cranked up the volume as the puck dropped.
They didn’t get to see the 2020 Stanley Cup Final in person. Now they got to cheer for goals. They got to chant for saves by goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with a “Vas-SEE! Vas-SEE!” They got to gasp for a gallant blocked shot by forward Alex Killorn. Thanks to Tampa Bay’s offensive outburst, they even got to do something rare: taunt Montreal goalie Carey Price with a “Care-EEE … Care-EEE …”
“For the NHL, normalcy means the greatest athletes in the world playing the greatest game in the world with breathtaking skill and relentless dedication in pursuit of a trophy that is utterly iconic,” Commissioner Bettman said.
“But it will only be normal when our athletes are playing all of our games and pursuing the Stanley Cup in front of thousands of the most passioned fans in all sports once again filling all of our arenas. Let there be no doubt our game and our players need and feed off the energy of our fans.”