(Note: The National Hockey League announced a realignment that puts Nashville in the same division as defending Stanley Cup Champion Tampa Bay. This is a behind-the-scenes look into the Lightning’s postseason run in the 2019-20 bubble.)
Jason Berger, an assistant equipment manager, was standing behind the bench in the tunnel leading to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s locker room watching the clock tick down during Game 6 of the 2020 Stanley Cup Finals.
Three, two, one, horn.
“I kind of blacked out a little bit,” said Berger. “I grabbed on to whoever was around me and just held them tight because hockey is a family and I knew that once that clock hit zero, our hockey lives would change forever.”
Berger came to Tampa Bay from the Providence Bruins (2012-17) of the American Hockey League. Prior to the Bruins, he won a Kelly Cup with the Florida Everglades of the East Coast Hockey League and got his start with the Western Hockey League’s Seattle Thunderbirds.
The 2019-20 season was moving right along for the Philly-native, who was in his third NHL season. The Lightning had high expectations and were headed towards another playoff berth when the season came to a screeching halt.
The Lightning was in Philadelphia for a matchup with the Flyers and it seemed like a normal game day. Berger was in the laundry room getting everything ready for that night when a conversation started about the Utah Jazz and the suspension of the NBA season.
“We followed them,” said Berger. “Someone cleverly looked at where the Jazz had been to do contact tracing and found that we were following them. Wherever the Jazz went, we were a day or two after. It was really creepy but thankfully we didn’t have any issues.”
Berger returned home to the Tampa Bay-area and immediately turned into his fiancee’s, now wife, assistant for about three months. He cooked, cleaned, made sure she was fed and had her coffee while she was working.
The offseason was when he and Lauren were supposed to get married which was an August destination wedding in Orcas Island, Wash. COVID-19 and the hockey schedule forced the couple to reschedule to July with their families in attendance via Zoom.
“We moved it up and did it Covid-style via Zoom,” said Berger. “We actually bought a house during quarantine so we got married at our new house in front of our pool.”
Welcome to the bubble
Two weeks later, Berger left for the NHL bubble.
The equipment managers packed for two-and-a-half months and they needed every piece of it.
“Looking at the tendency of players was really important,” said Berger as he explained the process. “We took every stick we had in five stick bags, we normally travel with three. We took extra gloves for every player, extra skates and we even ended up shipping pallets to Toronto because we couldn’t take everything on the plane.”
Tape, a portable air conditioner, toiletries and anything that the team could possibly need were all sent into the bubble. Some guys go a week on a pair of gloves or two weeks on a pair of skates and they had to make they packed enough to last for the duration of the playoffs.
When the team arrived in Toronto for the round robin, everyone had to self quarantine for a week. They were allowed to go to the rink and their hotel room, nothing else. Being in the Toronto bubble was a blessing in disguise for the Lightning because the Toronto F.C. and Toronto Argonauts stadium was in the bubble and open for the teams to use.
After a four-team round robin with the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference, Tampa Bay met Columbus in the first round. The Blue Jackets had to beat the hometown Maple Leafs in the wildcard round.
The first game of the series was set for August 11 and nobody could’ve predicted what happened next.
Five overtimes, 33,000 steps, 16.2 miles, a 3-2 win and 17 hours since he first got to the practice rink that morning, Berger finally got back to his hotel room.
It was a pretty far walk in Toronto from the bench to the dressing room, according to Berger. Because the game went five overtimes, that meant a lot of steel changes were being made. The Lightning rotates three sets of steel per guy and with the edge holders from Bauer, they are able to change it out in seconds. It is Berger’s job to run back to the room to sharpen the steel and bring it back to the bench cases.
“I’m an energy giver,” Berger described himself. “I like to bring that to the room so if I start acting weird then the players will feed off that so I had to remain calm.”
Tampa Bay won the series against Columbus, beat Boston and then moved everything to Edmonton for the Conference Finals against the New York Islanders.
In true Lightning fashion, Anthony Cerelli buried the game-winner in overtime to give Tampa Bay the Prince of Wales Trophy.
“We were excited, we were happy in that moment but we get back to the dressing room and every calmed down pretty quickly because it was only one piece,” he reminisced. “You can’t get too high with it because you didn’t win anything. That was only one piece of the puzzle.”
Stanley Cup Finals
The arena went from the Stanley Cup Playoffs to the Stanley Cup Finals overnight. Banners were changed and the feel in Edmonton was completely different.
“I was expecting it and it still caught me off-guard,” Berger said. “It was jaw-dropping. Like, we are actually doing this thing.”
Then, captain Steven Stamkos made his return from injury and scored a goal on his first shift.
“It was meant to be and it something that is going to continue to resonate throughout hockey for years to come,” said Berger about Stamkos.
Tampa Bay went up 3-1 over Dallas but the Stars took Game 5 in overtime to extend the season at least one more game.
“When Brayden (Point) scored the first goal, it was pure excited,” said Berger. “It was amazing. Watching him take that shot from the top of the circle, follow his shot, get his rebound, he’s a brilliant player with great hockey IQ.”
Point’s goal proved to be a game-winner and gave Berger an opportunity to do something only champs can do.
“It was the lightest 35 pounds I’ve ever lifted over my head,” laughed Berger.
The next day, the organization flew home from Edmonton. Waiting at the airport, on the tarmac were the families of every individual who had been gone for 65 days.
“It was one of those moments where a weight was lifted,” said Berger. “It was a calm excitement.”
Each family took photos with all the trophies at center ice of Amalie Arena and there was a boat parade. Because who needs to sit in a car when you can take a boat?
Berger is still waiting to find out when his day with the Stanley Cup will be but he has given some thought as to what he might do.
“I would like to take it home for my dad and my brother to be a part of it,” he said. “If not, we will have to stay home and float with it in our pool.”
(Since the story was written, Berger had his day with the Cup.)