They hoisted, they hugged and they kissed the Stanley Cup — then they filled it with Champagne and gulped it empty again.
Soon, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s players will see their names stamped for posterity in the silver of hockey’s most cherished trophy, but last week their immediate priority was doing what champions get to do: hold the Cup close, whether or not your season and your planet have been disordered by a pandemic.
The N.H.L. breathed a corporate sigh of relief when the Lightning defeated the Dallas Stars to claim the Cup on Sept. 28, making it the first major North American professional sports league to complete its season amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, following the success of the summer’s emergency experiment, the league and its champions face a new quandary: How does a team safely fulfill all the rights — and rites — that come with winning a championship?
Since 1995, each Cup-winning player, coach and trainer has been granted a day to host the Stanley Cup in his hometown. Last year, when the St. Louis Blues won, that endeavor kept Phil Pritchard, a Hockey Hall of Fame vice president known as the keeper of the Cup, and his staff on the move for more than 100 days. Along the way, they visited Canadian towns called Calahoo and Port Hood along with Helsinki, Finland, and Novosibrisk, Russia.
Lightning wing Pat Maroon knows the drill. Having won the Cup last year, too, as a member of the Blues, he is just the third player in the expansion era to have won championships in consecutive seasons with different teams. Maroon, a native of St. Louis, spent his day with the Cup in July 2019 at home before visiting a mall where he had played in-line hockey as a youth, and hosting a lunch party, where the Cup was filled with toasted ravioli.
Just when he might get to reprise that experience remains to be seen. Last Wednesday, the Lightning shared the Cup with their fans by way of the Stanley Cup’s first boat parade, along the Hillsborough River. Later, the team held a rally for fans at Raymond James Stadium, home of the N.F.L.’s Buccaneers, with capacity restricted. The not-entirely-masked crowd of just over 11,000 was spread out across a stadium that can accommodate nearly 66,000.
Plans for further Stanley Cup pilgrimages are still in flux. A potential itinerary for daily visits would be another international one: While 14 of the Lightning’s players are Canadian and another six American, the roster also includes four Russians, two Czechs, a Swede and a Slovak.
Will Pritchard be steering the Cup to Plano, Texas (Blake Coleman), Moscow (Nikita Kucherov), or Ornskoldsvik, Sweden (Victor Hedman)? Will a player convert the Cup into a traditional Russian samovar (as the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin did in 2017), feed Kentucky Derby-winning horses from it (as the Rangers’ Eddie Olczyk in 1994) or arrange to christen a baby (the Cup has played its part in at least three baptisms)? No one’s committing to anything quite yet.
Pritchard said on Monday that the league was consulting with the Lightning in the hopes of arranging some kind of “celebration tour.”
“Of course, being very concerned about everybody’s health and safety, it is an ongoing discussion,” he said.
Whatever happens, opportunities for touching and drinking from the Cup, he emphasized, will be limited. “Currently we are staying in Tampa,” he said.
After last week’s public events, the Cup spent the weekend on Tampa-area golf courses with Lightning players and at a party for the team’s coaches. On Sunday, it accompanied captain Steven Stamkos and other players to Raymond James Stadium to watch the Buccaneers defeat the Los Angeles Chargers.
An Englishman, Lord Stanley of Preston, donated the original Cup in 1892, when he was serving as governor-general of Canada. It was a challenge trophy when it was first awarded the following winter, 24 years before the founding of the N.H.L.
Celebratory routines soon settled into place. A crowd of 30,000 thronged the streets of Montreal in 1902 to fete the local AAA team. It’s unlikely that they were pioneers in quaffing from the Cup, but they do seem to have been the first to make the news in doing so, filling it with wine aboard a train headed home and treating friends to a sip.
Other adventures have seen the Cup sunken in swimming pools, forgotten by the side of a Montreal street, stolen and held for ransom. But it probably wasn’t kicked onto a frozen canal.
When the flu pandemic put a stop to the 1919 finals before a winner could be decided, the Stanley Cup seemed to have remained safely ensconced in Montreal.
In mid-August of this year, concerns about how the champions would celebrate as the coronavirus continued to spread did occupy the attention of league officials, several of whom suggested that some sort of strictures might be prudent when the time came to hand over the Cup. A month later, none were on obvious display as the Lightning left Edmonton, Alberta, and headed home to share their victory with their fans.
“How does one do socially distant parades??” Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady tweeted last Tuesday in congratulating the Lightning. The team’s answer, that Wednesday, was to take to the Hillsborough River on a day when Florida reported at least 174 new coronavirus deaths and 1,948 new cases.
City and Lightning officials emphasized the care with which the revelry was organized.
“To honor our team and the Stanley Cup’s first trip back to Tampa Bay in 16 years, we worked diligently with the City of Tampa, Hillsborough County and others to create socially distant, outdoors celebrations, spread out over two miles on the Tampa Riverwalk and at a less than 20% of capacity at Raymond James Stadium,” the Lightning said in a statement.
“Clearly,” Mayor Jane Castor said, “we had to do everything that we could to make the celebrations safe, but still allow the community to participate in such an incredible occasion.”
As seen on social media, some of the evening’s events appeared as if from another year, with fans as eager to high-five and huddle for selfies with the champions as some players accommodated them. And it wasn’t hard to find footage of fans lining up to drink from the Cup.
Broadcast from another, healthier time, it might have resembled good, raucous fun; in a 2020 context, it had the look of a potential super-spreader event. A city spokeswoman said officials hadn’t seen an uptick associated with the event but also noted that “we calculate two weeks at a time.”
“We are doing our best to watch all that,” Pritchard said on Oct. 1, the day after the parade.
As the keeper of the Cup, Pritchard is in his 32nd year of never being too far from the trophy. From Tampa, he acknowledged the challenges of reconciling the best health-and-safety practices with the close-quarters ebullience inherent in Cup celebrations.
This year, more than ever, he is also the cleaner of the Cup, wiping it down as many as four times a day with a three-part treatment of warm water followed by a soft detergent solution and medical disinfectant to deal with fingerprints and pathogens.
Eventually, as he does each year, Pritchard will accompany the Cup to Montreal, where the engraver Louise St. Jacques will diligently use a letter stamp to hammer the names of the new champions into the silver band of the Cup’s body.
That’s usually an autumn appointment. Before that, a standard hockey off-season would be spent on the road going city to city with the Cup. That’s uncertain now.
Last week, defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk was already vowing that he would take the Cup home to New Rochelle, N.Y., a New York City suburb, as soon as possible.
“Needless to say, we are very proud of Kevin,” Mayor Noam Bramson of New Rochelle said in an email, adding that the city still hadn’t considered just how an official recognition might be realized. “Options,” he noted, “are severely constrained by COVID.”