While that statement is a fact, it feels inevitable that this victory will always be tied to the circumstances under which it took place — a not-quite-regular season, the months-long break before the round of not-actually-playoffs, the precautions and more than 30,000 COVID-19 tests, all while in lockdown and in front of empty seats. If a Stanley Cup is awarded and the fans aren’t there to see it, did it really happen?
That’s a stupid question, of course, because we all saw it happen, and there’s video footage of it happening — though I’d say just skip to the last five minutes of Game 6, because it was easily the most boring game of the series, but regardless, it’s there and you can’t say that the Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t the 2020 Stanley Cup Champions.
The argument I’ve been looking forward to the least is to what degree the circumstances playoffs happened in affected their outcome. We saw a glimpse of this early on, when goaltender Tuuka Rask left the bubble to be with his family during what was later revealed to be a medical emergency and Mike Milbury decided to tell the world that actually, Rask Just Didn’t Want To Be There.
I have been pretty candid about how the NHL plowing ahead with playoffs in the middle of a global pandemic isn’t a great reflection of priorities and irresponsible of the NHL, even with the precautions taken. Playoffs happened anyway, and after 30,000+ tests and zero positive results, I still feel those resources could’ve gone elsewhere but I’m also glad to be on the other side of the absolute best case scenario.
Just as Milbury before him, I knew someone would come in with a dumb take about this win. By god, that must be Damien Cox’s music:
Not as difficult to win a Cup when there’s no road games, no travel. Still a difficult thing to win it all. Tampa gave lots of sweat and blood to make this happen. But let’s not compare bubble hockey with the real thing.— Damien Cox (@DamoSpin) September 29, 2020
In follow up tweets, Cox tries to weasel out of a bad take in predictable ways — “I never said it wasn’t a real Cup!” — while ignoring that he did say, right there in black and white that it’s “Not as difficult to win a Cup when there’s no road games, no travel.”
It’s a stupid take that can be pulled apart by literally just bringing up the fact that the Olympics exist in a bubble and what NHL players think when it comes to the Stanley Cup versus a gold medal.
Thankfully, Goodrow came in to shut him down bright and early this morning:
You try going through what we went through, not seeing our families for months, living in a hotel for 60+ days, 24 teams that had a chance, no home advantage for either team, but hey, say what you want https://t.co/aFtda98OJc— Barclay Goodrow (@bgoodrow23) September 29, 2020
Goodrow’s point is more than fair. If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that working around a pandemic creates a whole new set of problems. So what that the travel was different this year? There were also a lot more stressors, not the least of which is the general horror of existing while our backyards are burning, a deadly virus is about to hit its second wave and a social revolution is brewing. The problems are different, but problems will always be there.
I won’t get all “please like my sport” here and pretend these guys are warriors or anything. But they gave up a lot to give this season an ending and to entertain people during a difficult time for pretty much everybody. Belittling that in any kind of way just feels like a real asshole move. And this is coming from someone who has been calling it the “COVID Cup” since Matt Duchene gave birth to the phrase back in May.
The good news is that Cox doesn’t seem to be in the majority opinion. In our latest SB Nation Reacts poll, we asked if this year’s winner should include an asterisk, given the tournament style, but overwhelmingly, our readers said no.
I mean seriously, I don’t want to get out of bed most days. I can’t imagine playing hockey every other night right now and I’m not about to act like the people who did do that didn’t have just as difficult of a time reaching the end as any of the winners who came before them. Like I said, the problems are different, but they’re still there.
In terms of handling the risk factors associated with the coronavirus, the NHL did a good job. I know it’s not fun to give Gary Bettman credit, but it’s possible to acknowledge the complicated feelings about putting on a sports tournament during a pandemic and still see that the league pulled off something incredible — and hopefully having hockey around helped some people get through this weird time.
A cup win is a cup win. And not to brag, but we kind of predicted this: