Instead, this new setup is one the media would usually only see during the playoffs. Three days before the pause, as the coronavirus started to become a thing, the NHL instituted guidelines for how the media could interact with players. Media would no longer be allowed in locker rooms before and after games. They'd have to remain six feet apart. Instead of racing to the locker room after the game to get quotes from players at their stalls in tightly-packed scrums, reporters could request players, who would then be brought to the media room and sit at the table and answer questions, far enough away from everyone else.
The Lightning experienced these restrictions in Toronto during their final game before the pause. While media sat in an auxiliary room outside the Toronto Raptors' locker area following morning skate at Scotiabank Arena, one by one Kevin Shattenkirk, Yanni Gourde, Anthony Cirelli and Cooper were brought in for socially-distanced scrums, the start of a new reality in the NHL.
The Lightning never got to use the new setup inside the media work room at AMALIE Arena. The season was paused six hours before the scheduled puck drop between the Lightning and the Flyers.
The room remains ready, waiting for the season to unpause and the social distancing between media and players/coaches to continue.
I remember driving into work March 12 feeling there was less than a 50 percent chance there would be a game that evening.
I watched the night before as the start of the NBA's Utah Jazz game at Oklahoma City was held up. My attention perked when fans were asked to exit the arena, an announcement over the p.a. informing the game had been postponed.
Reports surfaced almost immediately Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus, prompting the postponement of the game. Minutes later, the NBA suspended its season indefinitely.
Surely, the NHL would have to take similar measures, I thought. The two leagues share arenas in many cities. And locker rooms. Their schedules and travel itineraries are often intertwined. It's not uncommon to stay in the same hotel as a NBA team while on the road with the Lightning.
As I walked up Channelside Drive, dodging the trolley as I crossed over Water Street, I wondered what morning skate would look like, or if there'd even be a morning skate. That question was answered soon after arriving at my desk by a League memo advising teams not to skate. There would be a Board of Governors call at 1 p.m. to decide the fate of the season.
Our content team was also holding a meeting at 10 a.m. I was hesitant to attend. I had just gotten back from the last road trip with the team a day earlier, a three-city, five-day jaunt through Boston, Detroit and Toronto. The night before, someone on Twitter checked the Jazz schedule against the Lightning and saw Tampa Bay twice played in the same arena as Utah a day later. The Jazz played in Boston Friday night; the Bolts beat the Bruins at TD Garden Saturday. Utah faced the Detroit Pistons on Saturday; the Lightning were in Detroit Sunday to take on the Red Wings. Three days later, Gobert's coronavirus test came back positive, igniting the mass of lockdowns and cancellations that swept the country.
In Boston, the Lightning shared the visitors locker room at TD Garden with the Jazz less than 12 hours after Gobert had left it when accounting for Tampa Bay's morning skate at TD Garden early Saturday.
I was unsure about confining myself in an office with co-workers who weren't on that road trip, possibly infecting them if I had picked up the virus while traveling. The meeting was optional. I skipped it.
A couple hours later, the NHL announced the season was being paused.
There would be no game that night against the Philadelphia Flyers.
There would be no games period for an indefinite amount of time.
I gathered up my gear, grabbed what I would need to work from home and walked out of the arena early Thursday afternoon on March 12.
I hadn't been back since.
I heard the arena had an eerie, empty feel to it now, nobody roaming the corridors, everything still set up in anticipation for that game against Philadelphia.
So I decided to check it out, to see the reminders from that day two months earlier when everything changed.
When I enter the arena through Security - Gate D, I'm greeted by Susan Danielik.
Danielik is the Lightning's director of premium and guest services.
Today, she's scanning the forehead of anybody who enters the arena with a no-touch thermometer, making sure those who are feverish don't enter. Danielik's one of a handful of full-time Lightning employees taking a shift at the arena to give security an extra hand. Today was the first time she'd used the new thermometer.
"We're learning," she said, smiling.
I pass, got a 97.4.
I can enter.
The lights are shut off in the bowl. Only the green glow from the exit signs at the top of the stairs of every section and a few rays peeking out from behind the curtain separating the concourse from the rink keep it from being pitch black.
There's hardly anybody in the arena. During the hour I walk around, I run into two people outside of the security command. At one point on the concourse, I thought I heard a group of people up ahead, just out of sight. When I rounded the bend, nobody was there. The voices belonged to Fleetwood Mac, which was playing from the speakers inside the bathrooms.
A light flickers at the DEX Imaging sponsorship space in one of the concourse corner areas.
Behind a replica Lightning bench, a LED screen shows a repeating loop of Lightning fans celebrating.
These have been the only fans cheering at AMALIE Arena for some time now, I think.
The point of sale terminals at the grab 'n go stands are still on, waiting for an item to scan. On a counter sits a dorm room-size freezer. Through the glass front, Drumsticks, Dibs and Haagen-Dazs are neatly lined up.
The beverage coolers that are normally interspersed throughout the concourses are corralled against the wall on the Trane Terrace Level. Before games, they're loaded with ice and drinks before being wheeled to their final destination. Here, it looks like early afternoon on a game day, in that time-to-catch-your-breath lull between morning preparations and evening execution once the arena doors open to the public.
Through the window of the locked Tampa Bay Sports retail store located on the Promenade Level concourse, a slick-looking pride t-shirt peeks out of a box sitting on the floor. The Lightning were supposed to host their fourth annual Pride Night the day the NHL paused March 12. There's also green Lightning gear scattered throughout the store in anticipation of St. Patrick's Day the following week.
Upstairs in the press box, the attendance from the March 5 Montreal game, the last one played at AMALIE Arena before the pause, is tacked to a cork board, another sellout at 19,092, the 234th in a row for the Lightning.
Which begs the question: Would a home game without fans due to corona end the team's sellout streak?
Everywhere are reminders how things changed in March, almost as if time has stood still since. The TVs at the ReliaQuest Ticket Office and Lakewood Ranch Client Services Lounge are still playing even though both spaces are empty. A December/January issue of Tampa Magazine sits on a side table in the lobby of the main entrance. The Morning Skate Show table is still set up on the Club Level. Bagged popcorn - caramel, cheddar and butter - sits inside the glass display case of a concession stand.
As I leave, I check out with Mike Hannafin in the security command center, who keeps a tab on everybody who enters and exits the building. On the wall behind Hannafin, a white board has the arena's calendar for the next few months. On May 26, Elton John is written in black with an X through it. Other shows over various dates are crossed out too.
I would expect it'd be boring keeping watch on an empty arena with no events for the foreseeable future, but Hannafin says there's plenty to keep him busy.
"All the chefs are here cooking for Feeding Tampa Bay," he said. "There's usually seven up there every day. And we have a lot of contractors coming in because they're updating the WiFi."
I exit the arena, unsure when I'll be able to return but assured it'll be soon.
And when we do come back, I think, at least the WiFi will be better.