TAMPA — The tune began with an almost melancholy sound. The players had not yet arrived on the ice and the TV cameras weren’t rolling. Do-do-do-do …There was something familiar about the slow, elegiac melody as Krystof Srebrakowski played the organ in the upper level of Amalie Arena in front of thousands of empty seats Wednesday evening. Dah-dah-dah-dah …As the arena’s giant video board began showing still pictures from the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run, the realization washed over you and the humming in your ears turned to lyrics on your lips. “I’ve paid my dues, time after time …” This was the elegant way the Lightning began a party that had no invitations. With a proud, yet subdued, version of We Are the Champions in honor of a team that won a Stanley Cup and a community still waiting to celebrate.And once the scripted portion of the program was complete, the Lightning played a happy tune of their own with a look-out-world performance in a 5-1 victory against Chicago to open the 2021 NHL season.If you were proud of the Lightning in September, you should be overjoyed today. The decision to begin their title defense in an arena without fans cost them money and memories, and that selflessness in the midst of a pandemic is emblematic of a group of players who put the collective good over individual accomplishments last season.And when it came time for the championship banner celebration with Lord Stanley’s Cup sitting on a pedestal at center ice Wednesday night, the Lightning chose to “unveil” rather than “raise” the banner. It hangs now halfway between the first and second levels, waiting for the night when the arena is filled again, and a proper gala can be staged.“The plan had gone through a number of iterations,” said Lightning vice president of game presentation John Franzone. “We wanted to strike the right tone. We wanted to wait for our fans to be back in the building to truly celebrate it properly. It’s their banner. Collectively, I think we felt to raise it to the ceiling, to the rafters, without them to see it live, we’d be doing them a disservice.“We wanted to make sure we were respectful. Unfortunately, this is not a happy time for everyone right now in the world, so the phrase we had in mind was low key.”The decision to tone down the party was made in recent days after the organization decided that rising COVID-19 numbers made the thought of inviting even 4,000 fans into the arena untenable. That choice led to a handful of grouchy fans but a team official said the community’s response was predominantly understanding and positive.Even for those fans who might have been unhappy about missing the celebration, the players did their part to keep the mood light. After a sluggish first 10 minutes, the Lightning took the game over with three first-period goals.The defense was mostly suffocating and the power play was clicking without Nikita Kucherov, but Chicago is not exactly the standard bearer among NHL opponents. What the Lightning did Wednesday night was offer some assurance that there is still plenty of talent on the ice, even if the depth has taken a hit due to salary cap ramifications.And when the game ended, as AC/DC’s For Those About to Rock played on the arena’s loud speakers, the players hung around the ice for an extra second or two and raised their sticks in salute to the few dozen family and workers in the arena’s second level.“That’s the one thing that hurt tonight was that (fans) weren’t in the building,” said coach Jon Cooper. “We wanted to make sure we had a good showing for them tonight so when people get up in the morning and they’re around the water cooler they can talk about how cool the game was and how we represented Tampa well because the guys love being here, they love playing for our fans, they love the city and I think it shows. And part of our success is because of our attachment to the town.”Outside the arena, 10 minutes before the official start of festivities Wednesday night, the Thunder Alley pavilion was eerily empty. As a light rain fell and a strong wind blew, the only sound was the clanging of poles against flags that were flying at half-mast.It was a low-key start to a strange and eventful opening night.Eventually, the storm will pass. John Romano can be reached at email@example.com . Follow @romano_tbtimes.