TAMPA — It was the most special moment of opening night, but almost no one was in the building to see it.
Before Wednesday night’s opener against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Lightning celebrated their 2019-20 Stanley Cup championship by unveiling the banner that will hang in the Amalie Arena rafters — someday.
The Lightning decided to wait to hoist the banner until fans can return to the arena, which is closed to the public through at least Feb. 5 due to rising coronavirus numbers in Hillsborough County.
“In sports, they say trophies are for the team, rings are for the players and banners are for the fans,” former Lightning play-by-play announcer Rick Peckham said during the unveiling ceremony.
“It’s those championship banners from youth rinks to pro rinks around the world that link generations of hockey fans together with the teams they love. Together is the key word. So we’ve decided to wait to raise our 2020 banner into the rafters until after our fans are back inside of our house.”
The Lightning’s decision is further evidence of their desire to have fans be part of the championship they couldn’t celebrate in person while the team competed in bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton.
“It’s just tough, because it’s a special night for us opening the season, coming in as defending champs, and the people you want to have with you aren’t going to be there,” coach Jon Cooper said after Wednesday’s morning skate. “So, it’s going to be a bittersweet night.”
As the banner was unveiled, players gathered in that corner of the ice. They tapped their sticks as it rose, and when it reached the top, they lifted their sticks in the air before skating to the other end of the ice.
“It’s tough when you win something, especially how we did win it away from the fans in that bubble,” forward Barclay Goodrow said Wednesday morning. “It’s something they weren’t able to experience at all.
“It would have been nice to open the season off with some people in the seats to raise the banner and share that with them. We played hard for the fans and for the support we got back in Tampa when we were in Edmonton.”