Rozner: Against odds, Bettman and NHL players finish job

  • Tampa Bay Lightning players celebrate after defeating the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup Monday in Edmonton.

    Tampa Bay Lightning players celebrate after defeating the Dallas Stars to win the Stanley Cup Monday in Edmonton. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 9/29/2020 12:56 PM

It's hard to be surprised by what a hockey player is willing to do to win a game.

If you've ever known one, you understand that there is no sacrifice they won't make.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Still, it was moving to watch the Lightning and Stars battle to the very end of Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final, to see Tampa players throwing their faces in front of pucks in the final minute, just as players were doing from the very beginning of the bubble games.

And then to view the Lightning celebration in an empty arena, as if there were 20,000 fans there with them, was emotional.

A major North American team sport had crowned its first pandemic champion.

There were many people rooting against the return of sports, predicting death, destruction and disruption, and many more who said this couldn't be done.

And yet the NHL pulled it off.

Amid the hysteria, these players gave up so many weeks of their lives, away from their families for nearly three months -- including local practices and camps -- and they did everything they were asked to do because they wanted to hold the greatest trophy in sports when it was over.

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It is easy to have great admiration for what they have done.

No fans, no matter. They played just as hard as ever, wanting that big silver bowl as if it were any other season.

Having spoken to some involved in the bubble, it was not at all an easy 65 days in Edmonton, rough for the veterans with families and nearly as difficult for the younger players willing to give up everything for this.

If it doesn't seem like it was that long a stay, keep in mind that the Blackhawks returned home 43 days ago.

It was obviously brutal physically. It always is. But the mental aspect was also a challenge, with little to do beyond the rink and a hotel room. There was no griping and there were no mistakes.

While other sports have struggled with positive tests, with players leaving restricted areas or complaining about rules and boredom, for the ninth straight week, the NHL announced Monday that the league hadn't recorded a single positive COVID-19 test.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

That's 33,174 tests administered to league and team personnel in the Toronto and Edmonton bubbles.

It worked. It's OK to admit it. It worked.

Full credit here to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who cooperated with the players association to accommodate every need the players had throughout this process.

Rather than fight with them, as he has always done in the past, Bettman recognized how difficult this would be and listened at every turn to the needs of the entertainers, instead of making it about himself.

Look at some of the other commissioners and you have to respect the way in which Bettman went about getting this done.

The NHL could have just cashed it in, but instead the league managed this seemingly impossible task and reached the finish line in magnificent style, the playoffs as spectacular as ever.

Maybe more so than ever, given the absurd circumstances.

"We did what we set out to do," Bettman told NHL.com Monday night after handing the Stanley Cup to Tampa captain Steven Stamkos. "There were sleepless nights and there were skeptics, but I believed that with our collaborative effort across all our constituents that we could do this.

"There is a sense of relief, but I'm also feeling more proud of everybody who participated than relief."

As for the players, it is a tribute to their commitment that they would endure this very long quarantine for a chance to celebrate far away from home without friends and family.

"There's no harder championship to win," Bettman said before handing the Stanley Cup to Stamkos. "The gauntlet that you have to run to hoist this trophy is unbelievable, and never more unbelievable than this year.

"These guys have been away from home for more than two months. This has been the ultimate team effort. This Stanley Cup run will go down in the record books as perhaps the hardest run of all time.

"You guys should all be incredibly proud. This is an amazing accomplishment."

It truly is.

Just as amazing is the compromise displayed by Bettman, the owners, the players association and every player that laced up skates in a practice or in a bubble.

Against the odds and in the face of so much criticism, with so many that didn't want them to succeed, the NHL said it could do this and then the NHL got it done.

After a full tournament, they have a legitimate Stanley Cup champion in 2020.

Bravo.

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