As National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman prepared to officially hand the Tampa Bay Lightning the franchise’s second Stanley Cup in its 28-year history, he said the team wanted to do things a little bit differently – and why not, everything has been different in 2020.
“It’s my honor to present the Stanley Cup to Steven Stamkos,” Bettman said with a smile.
Addressing the Lightning’s captain specifically, rather than the entire organization, put the focus on Stamkos, one of the league’s elite players who was expected to win the Stanley Cup ever since the highly-touted Canadian was drafted No. 1 overall in 2008, and he certainly earned it this postseason. But it wasn’t like previous seasons for the 30-year-old, when he’d often help carry the Lightning to deep runs – no, he had a much different role this year but it ultimately led to an instantly-classic Hollywood-type ending.
Plagued with a lower-body injury for the entirety of the NHL sanctioned bubble, Stamkos proved to be one of the team’s biggest cheerleaders, focusing on the “next man up” mentality. With each game and each series win, it became more unclear if he’d get the opportunity to return to the ice this season but then, all of a sudden, came his Kirk Gibson moment – one that, just hours after it happened, was already etched into NHL folklore. For those who might not remember, Gibson hit a pinch-hit walk-off home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, despite injuring both legs in the National League Championship Series and what Stamkos accomplished in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final is along those very same lines.
Nearly two months since the Lightning entered the bubble, Stamkos suited up and made a brief cameo in Edmonton in what would be his only postseason appearance. And he made the most of it. With Tampa Bay leading the Dallas Stars 1-0, Stamkos skated down the ice and blasted a gorgeous wrist shot past Anton Khudobin to give his team a 2-0 lead, before his injury forced him to leave the game and watch his teammates win 5-2 from the bench during both the second and third periods. According to recent NHL rules, a player must play in at least 41 regular season games or one Stanley Cup Final game to have his name etched on the cup. Thankfully, there was no worry there for Stamkos, who played in 57 games this season before needing core muscle surgery on March 2.
When the time came to lift the 35-pound piece of hardware in the air, he was ready.
Despite missing Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, Stamkos scoreboard watched like the rest of the world and, with his team clinging to a 2-0 lead in the potential clinching game, he entered the locker room with about four minutes left and began to suit up, intending to celebrate like the rest of his team. It brought a ton of emotion for Stamkos, a player whose future in Tampa Bay looked uncertain before signing an eight-year, $68 million contract extension in 2016, just days before becoming an unrestricted free agent. Now, he’s a folk hero, set to finish at least the majority of his career with the franchise while chasing another cup and never buying another meal in the area.
He’s tallied 886 points during 874 career NHL games with the Lightning but none will likely ever be more memorable than one, which came on a single shot during 2:47 of ice time. Sure, he’ll get more opportunities to be on the ice and lead his team to the Stanley Cup but the true sign of a good player is when the team rallies around its biggest cheerleader – and during an unprecedented postseason, it was Stamkos.