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No pause for the Lightning's Community Heroes program

The Bolts will still honor the Community Heroes slated to be recognized at the final seven home games

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL / TampaBayLightning.com

The Tampa Bay Lightning won't play another game at AMALIE Arena until the 2020-21 season.

For the Lightning's Community Heroes program, however, there is no pause.

When the National Hockey League season temporarily stopped March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Lightning still had seven home games remaining on the regular season schedule. Those games were lost for good following commissioner Gary Bettman's announcement of the League's Return to Play Plan, which declared the regular season finished.

The NHL is eyeing an early August resumption of play, going right into a modified 24-team playoff format held in two hub cities - one for each conference -- with the hopes of eventually crowning a Stanley Cup champion for the season.

The abrupt end to the regular season left a few loose ends.

For the Lightning, a Community Hero was slated to be honored at each of the remaining home games. The Community Hero program, introduced in 2011-12 by Jeff and Penny Vinik, awards $50,000 to local Heroes or non-profits whose work has made a positive impact on the community. The $50,000 is distributed to a non-profit charity of the Heroes' choice.

Video: Community Hero | Dr. Cameron Tebbi

The Lightning Community Advisory Committee had already selected the final seven Heroes before the pause. Rather than wait until next season, the organization decided to continue to honor them throughout the coming weeks despite the absence of any home games.

"We very much want to give that $350,000 out to non-profits in the community as well as award the seven heroes who were so deserving based on all their years of great work," said Lightning senior vice president of philanthropy and community initiatives Elizabeth Frazier. "We obviously can't replicate a standing ovation with 20,000-plus people in the arena, but what's great is that we have now the opportunity to go out and reach each hero."

On Wednesday, the Lightning took their show on the road and honored Dr. Cameron Tebbi, the 35th Community Hero of the season and the first since the pause. Dr. Tebbi is a leader in the pediatric cancer research community who has dedicated the last 50 years of his life to saving children battling cancer and sickle cell disorders. Through his research, Dr. Tebbi made advancements in developing a vaccine for leukemia and creating a protein that allows doctors to identify children more likely to develop cancer.

During a socially-distanced ceremony at the 1 Voice Foundation in Brandon, Dr. Tebbi was presented a $50,000 check by Lightning CEO Steve Griggs. ThunderBug was there too. And as is customary during the wildly-popular in-game celebration at the second media timeout of the first period inside AMALIE Arena, Dr. Tebbi was given a Lightning jersey emblazoned with the No. 18 and his name on the back.

"It's important to honor them, one, because the non-profits need the money," Frazier said. "As you can imagine, a lot of events and galas were cancelled this past spring due to the pandemic. A lot of these non-profits -- there are 13 non-profits that are being awarded through the $350,000 -- many of them have been on the front lines during the last three months really doing some great work with housing, food insecurity, nutrition, health care, etc. But also, it's our job to shed a light on all these great works that these non-profits are doing too. Everybody's been so focused the last three months on COVID, and in the last three weeks they've been focused on social justice and what's going on in the community that (Wednesday), honoring Dr. Tebbi, he's been working almost his whole life to finding a vaccine that would prevent leukemia in children. So granted while life has been unprecedented in the last three months, we still have kids with cancer that need help."

Each week over the remaining six weeks, the Lightning will travel to the Hero's charity of choice to present the award and continue the Community Heroes tradition, just like they did this week with Dr. Tebbi. The organization did something similar during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season when the first three months were lost and the season was eventually reduced from 82 to 48 games. In that season, the Lightning continued to honor their Community Heroes on their originally-scheduled date even without games, taking the ceremony to each Hero's place of choice.

Dr. Tebbi is the 400th Community Hero since the program was introduced prior to the 2011-12 season beginning with a five-year, $10-million commitment. The Community Heroes program was extended in the summer of 2016 for another five years and $10 million. So far, the Lightning Foundation has awarded $20.15 million to more than 750 nonprofits in the Tampa Bay area. The program proved so popular and has become such a part of the fabric of a Lightning home game it even continued into the postseason, which accounts for why it has given well over the $20 million committed to the program despite one more season remaining.

Even a pandemic couldn't stop the philanthropic effort.

"What's amazing is Hero No. 400 is no less spectacular than Hero No. 1 or Hero No. 2," Frazier said. "We live in a community where we have so many great people that are doing such tremendous work that after nine years and 400 heroes, we still have no shortage of people we can honor."

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