The Stanley Cup is carried down to the ice at Amalie Arena as fans look on in Tampa, Fla., Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Tampa Bay Times, Dirk Shadd

Denied by COVID-19 in 2020, Tampa gets second chance to pull out Stanley Cup stops

TAMPA, Fla. — Don’t get Joseph Guggino wrong: he’s thrilled to have the Stanley Cup finals in town.

After all, COVID-19 took a heavy toll on Tampa’s local entrepreneurs and restaurateurs, denying the city a lucrative opportunity to host the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2020 championship run.

Now, with domestic U.S. travel ramping back up, local economies breathing again and the Bolts back in the finals, Guggino’s two-year-old downtown restaurant venture is getting another chance.

Thing is, his wife Marianne Homsy is from Montreal — and it’s showing.

“It’s coming out of her like I’ve never seen,” Guggino laughed in an interview Sunday as he described Homsy’s reaction to a Game 6 Canadiens goal.

“Marianne comes running from behind the counter: ‘Oh my God, did we score?’ I’m like, ‘We?’ Where’s this ‘We’ coming from?”

Guggino got the answer from his friend Vincent Lecavalier, the superstar forward who helped the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup in 2004 — and who also happens to come from Montreal.

“Vinnie says, ‘Yeah, that’s what happens when you don’t win a championship for 28 years.”

In title terms, Monday’s Game 1 will be feast versus famine.

Habs fans have been jonesing for a return trip to the finals since 1993, the last time the Canadiens — or any Canadian team, for that matter — managed to dislodge the Cup from the United States.

Backstopped by the confident play of Carey Price, the Canadiens have protected their star netminder with tenacious, patient defence, while offensive veterans like Eric Staal and Corey Perry have nurtured and presided over the emergence of young forwards like Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki.

Meanwhile, between the Lightning, the World Series finalist Rays and Tom Brady’s Super Bowl champion Buccaneers, Tampa is a place awash in championship-tier talent.

It will be nice to finally see some of it in person, Guggino said. Last year’s Stanley Cup final was in Edmonton and the World Series played out in Arlington, Texas. The Super Bowl was in Tampa, but with a limited crowd.

Whether it finally means a boost in business remains to be seen, said Guggino, whose restaurant — Forbici Modern Italian — has only been operating since 2019.

“We don’t have any baseline for it, because we got robbed of everything with COVID,” he said.

“We didn’t have any of the big hit with the Super Bowl, we didn’t have it with the Stanley Cup, and we didn’t have it with the Rays when they went to the final.”

Downtown Tampa looks like a city hungry to bear witness to another championship, the city festooned in simple “Go Bolts” banners and flags.

The Bolts are indeed heavy favourites, but so were each of the teams Montreal has dispatched so far on its unlikely playoff surge.

The Habs came back from a 3-1 deficit to stun the Toronto Maple Leafs, swept the Winnipeg Jets, then took six games to spoil the hopes of the Vegas Golden Knights.

“We aren’t the underdog,” Montreal assistant coach Luke Richardson said Sunday.

“We’re very confident in ourselves and what we’ve accomplished. We’ve tuned out the outside of the dressing room and let people say what they want.”

If history is any indication, there will be no shortage of Montreal fans showing up in person Monday, travel restrictions notwithstanding.

Guggino isn’t expecting much in the way of Canadians making the trip to Tampa, given that fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents won’t be exempt from return-trip quarantine until July 5.

There’s more than enough expatriates living in south Florida to make up for their absence, he said.

Which comprises another of the few drawbacks that come with being a local business magnate in a host city with friends in high hockey places: Guggino’s phone won’t stop ringing.

“I have these Montrealers — I had one Montrealer who lives in Miami now say, ‘Hey, can you get me two tickets for me and my brother?’” he said.

“And, of course, Vinnie — he was just laughing because his phone, everybody he knows was texting him, saying, ‘Can you get me tickets?’”