The Tampa Bay Lightning won the National Hockey League’s top trophy on Monday from within the confines of a 24/7 pandemic bubble in western Canada, and without any fans in the arena to watch.
By Wednesday, the players were back in Florida, greeting hordes of unmasked fans who turned out to celebrate their victory. No one appeared to mind that the state had passed 700,000 confirmed coronavirus cases a few days earlier and was reporting an average of at least 2,200 new cases a day over the past week.
Wednesday’s celebration began with a boat parade by Lightning players through downtown Tampa, and segued into a party in a local stadium that was attended by about 12,000 to 15,000 people, according to The Tampa Bay Times.
“It almost feels like what we’re doing now is, like, wrong,” one fan, Wes King, said.
Photos from the event showed thousands of unmasked fans cramming together on the bank of the Hillsborough River as unmasked players from the Lightning floated by on motorboats, drinking beer and puffing on cigars.
Other unmasked players slapped hands and posed for selfies with fans who had jammed together into a receiving line, and even allowed fans to drink from the cup, as winning teams normally do.
“So … why did they spend months in a bubble if they were just going to go Covid crazy the minute they were released?” one Canada-based Twitter user wrote. “Not the brightest bulbs.”
The N.H.L. was the first of the four major North American pro sports leagues to complete a season during the pandemic. It chose to base its playoff “bubbles” in Toronto and Edmonton because of their relatively low infection rates, especially compared with cities in the United States.
Players, team and league staff members, and medical officers were fenced off inside “secure zones” that included hockey arenas, practice facilities and hotels. Broadcasters stood at a social distance while interviewing players on the ice. And many players went weeks, or months, without seeing their families.
Even the league’s commissioner, Gary Bettman, had to produce negative tests during a weeklong home isolation, then quarantine in his hotel room for several days, before he could present the Stanley Cup to the Lightning.
“There’s no harder championship to win,” Mr. Bettman said before handing the trophy to the team’s captain, Steven Stamkos. “The gauntlet that you have to run to hoist this trophy is unbelievable, and never more unbelievable than this year.”
In other sports news related to the pandemic, Major League Baseball said it would sell tickets to the National League Championship Series and the World Series this October, both of which will be held at the Texas Rangers’ new retractable-roof ballpark in Arlington. The American League Championship Series will be played in San Diego, but the league could not get approval from California to sell tickets there.