TAMPA — The most famous trophy in sports was last off the plane.
A flash of silver in the Florida sun, the Stanley Cup arrived home Tuesday, high in the hands of Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, the world’s most precious carry-on. The evening’s main attraction disembarked just before.
A full 65 days after they entered the playoff bubble in Toronto, the Lightning’s players, long-haired and weary in black sweats and track suits, strolled onto the tarmac at Tampa International Airport as champions.
They had come off a long night. It has been such a long year. A torrent of emotions met them.
The children ran first. They broke loose from the hands of one parent only to rush the other, months since they last hugged. They left behind signs, “Welcome home, Dad” and “Charlie <3′s Daddy.” The players' partners were close behind, weaving in for a kiss.
Stamkos lowered the Cup to peck his son. Defenseman Ryan McDonagh set the trophy on the ground so his daughter, barely tall enough to see into the bowl, could press her face against the gleaming side. Winger Pat Maroon stood close by, hoarsely yelling: “She can’t touch it! What if she plays in the NHL?”
The Lightning had won, bursting the bubble on a five-year, at-times-agonizing push with its core players, but like the names engraved on the side of the Cup, superstition in hockey is forever.
Reunions were not just for the players. Lauren Berger held a handmade sign, gold lettering spelling out, “Best wedding present ever! Thx!” She married assistant equipment manager Jason Berger on July 4, in their Brandon backyard, players and fellow Lightning staffers attending by Zoom because of the coronavirus pandemic. A planned August wedding in Washington had been called off, and soon after they said “I do,” the team left for Canada.
“It was probably the hardest 65 days of my life,” Lauren Berger said. “And I went to law school.”
Then there were the fans. Just outside the chain-link fence surrounding the airstrip, a couple of hundred die-hards stood in blue sweaters and T-shirts, waiting for their glimpse.
In a year when it has seemed everything extraordinary is a cause for despair, the Lightning broke through, reminding fans that excellence can bring joy.
Jeanne Volk has been a Lightning fan from the very beginning. Now 69, she remembers franchise founder Phil Esposito coming to a bowling alley where she lives in Port Richey, trying to drum up interest — and season-ticket holders.
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Volk watched the seconds tick down and the Bolts rush the ice in Edmonton on Monday from her home. She is immunocompromised, with leukemia in clinical remission, and even before the pandemic visited a doctor for regular antibody treatments.
“I’ve been in hibernation,” she said. “My enjoyment was watching the Lightning.”
She was unsure about going to the airport but decided “if these guys sacrificed being in the bubble away from their families,” she could stand outside for a few hours. Rain darkened her souvenir T-shirt: “BECAUSE IT’S THE CUP.”
Children, fresh out of daycare and school, ran through the grassy ditch beside the road. They stuck thin knees through metal barricades and looked for players whose names they’re only beginning to learn.
Eric and Robin Hess, both 52, of New Tampa, brought a pom-pom, Lightning flag and their 4-year-old granddaughter, Luna. They became season-ticket holders after 2015, when the Lightning made the Stanley Cup final but lost. Normally, for a playoff run like this, they’d be at the home games. But the bubble gave them an unexpected benefit — watching and setting their game schedule with family. For Robin’s mother, who lost her husband this summer, each series offered “something to look forward to.”
And now “Luna thinks that all games mean grandpa and grandma are coming over.”
Standing in the grass more than an hour before the team was supposed to arrive was April Trimble, 32, who lost her job in human resources at an advertising company as the pandemic squeezed the area’s economy. After the win, she said, she stayed up until 6 a.m., crying.
“I had to get joy somewhere,” Trimble said.
Lightning fandom has brought her new friends, like Collene Barnhouse, 63, of Clearwater, a retiree who felt like her life stopped, too, when the NHL season paused in March.
Once the league returned, and the team flew off to the bubble, Barnhouse was there to wish the players well. She held a sign: “I sense a storm coming,” and remembers Brayden Point giving her a thumbs-up.
Clutching a worn poster with pictures of Point, her favorite player, Emily Gifford of Spring Hill looked out at the crowd over a cloth mask. When he scored the first goal of the final game, she cried for about 20 minutes.
“I haven’t seen them since March in person,” Gifford said of her beloved Bolts. “I miss them so much.”
In a bad year, she said, the team had reminded her that misery will end, hopefully soon. Before puck drop Monday, she said, doctors had declared her mother free of breast cancer.
Allison Bryant, 16, is as old as the Lightning’s Stanley Cup drought was. They won their first title in 2004.
When they triumphed Monday, she was screaming in Thunder Alley outside Amalie Arena. Wrapped in an Ondrej Palat jersey, she rushed straight from Plant High School to the airport to see the team close-up Tuesday.
“Last night was amazing,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for it to end yet.”
Times staff writer Diana C. Nearhos contributed to this report.
2020 Stanley Cup victory print: Lightning championship poster coming to Sunday’s Tampa Bay Times newspaper