The Journey of the Cup
Like everything else in life, the Stanley Cup started small.
When Frederick Stanley, the 16th Earl of Derby, KG, GCB, GCVO, PC, The Lord Stanley of Preston -- and you thought appellations like The Pocket Rocket and The Stratford Streak were cool -- purchased the original Cup from the London silversmith G.R. Collis in 1893 for the less-than-princely sum of 10 guineas, it was about 7 ˝ inches high and almost 11.5 inches in diameter.
The original Cup was actually a bowl, like the one that sits atop the current version of the trophy, although we can count our blessings that each spring NHL players don't embark on a fabulous two-month journey to win the Stanley Bowl. The name would smack of excess, commercialism and wardrobe malfunctions at intermission. (The only wardrobe malfunctions old-time hockey fans ever wanted to see were jerseys going over heads during fights before the tie-down rule was introduced.)
Just as Wayne Gretzky grew up from the tow-headed kid on the backyard rink in Walter Gretzky's home movies, the Cup, too, has grown up in 115 years. Bands have been added to accommodate the growing list of annual champions (and sometimes removed when the Cup became too unwieldy). There is a base. The original bowl that Lord Stanley intended to award to the top amateur team in the Dominion of Canada -- maybe this explains the current state of the Toronto Maple Leafs -- became too brittle and was replaced during the 1960s. Now, the Stanley Cup, the oldest trophy in North American sports, is almost three feet tall and weighs about 35 pounds. (The first thing many players say after hoisting it for the first time is that they can't believe how heavy it is.)
Of course, it has to be that big to hold so many dreams. The Cup itself is the single most marketable and arguably best thing about the NHL. Stars come and go -- one day even Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby will be old men -- but the Cup is forever, the silver symbol of the continuum of the sport, the thing that links Morenz to Lafleur and the 1907 champion Kenora Thistles to an even more prickly Anaheim Ducks team that won it a century later.
The other thing about the Stanley Cup that often is overlooked is that it's a remarkably lovely piece of sport art, an attractive and distinctive trophy. Like the Canadiens' great Jean Béliveau, who won it 10 times, the Cup actually grew more handsome as it aged. Maybe we forget about its beauty because we see so many replicas, like the faux statues of David that seem to be everywhere in Florence. (There are, in fact, three Stanley Cups: the original bowl, the so-called authenticated Cup, and the replica Cup, which, like the bowl, is kept in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.) The replicas crop up in the stands of 16 arenas in April, lugged by fans who realize there is no simple cure for a Stanley Cup fever. Aluminum foil and cardboard replace sterling silver, but those Cups all seem to bear a family resemblance to the genuine article.
Close your eyes and envision the Stanley Cup. Simple, right? OK, close your eyes again and see if you can picture the World Series trophy or the Vince Lombardi Trophy or whatever the NBA calls its hardware. Like Ovechkin throwing himself into the glass in celebration of a goal, only the Stanley Cup leaps into the front lobes of our brains, without the benefit of a nudge from Google.
Luckily, the NHL isn't as stuffy about its prize as the International Olympic Committee is about its five interlocking rings. The Stanley Cup is the People's Cup, inclusive rather than restrictive. It is passed around, not merely from player to player -- winning players each get a day with it -- and town to town, but to TV shows (Boston Legal) and charity events. No, it doesn't do weddings and bar mitzvahs, but the Cup has earned more frequent-flier points than any trophy in the world.
Lord Stanley encouraged each team to add a ring to the Cup to commemorate its victory. The Montreal Wanderers were the first to actually engrave the players' names on it. The Vancouver Millionaires followed. Since 1924, the engravings have been an annual event. (The only other trophy to follow that charming path is the Grey Cup, awarded to the Canadian Football League champion.)
Having your name engraved in silver, if not in immortality, is an added fillip of winning the trophy for modern millionaires, no matter where their franchise is located. And that is probably the most miraculous thing about the Cup: It has the unique ability to turn men into little boys.
Like the 6-year-olds they once were, NHLers really are playing for the trophy at the end of the season. Their salaries stop when the regular season does. There is, of course, a monetary prize, a playoff payout, that goes to all teams, but if you break it down per hour for the intense, all-consuming work the finalists will put in over eight weeks, they would probably make out just as well if they had been manning the deep fryer at a burger joint.
The game is distilled to its purest form during the playoffs. Stanley of Preston, whose farsighted vision was as long as his title, really did reward the top amateur team because in the spring, hockey is about the love of the game. The Stanley Cup makes men do strange, wonderful and ennobling things. If it is not the hardest trophy to win in sports -- the World Cup of soccer is essentially a two-year, not two-month competition -- there is nothing the tests the body and the will so thoroughly. The weight of the hockey world was on 16 teams when the playoffs began April 9; that weight was about 35 pounds.