NHL Players entrusted with the Stanley Cup over the years haven't always justified their custodianship. Clark Gillies of the New York Islanders fed his dog from hockey's Holy Grail in 1980. A Pittsburgh Penguin sent it to the bottom of Mario Lemieux's swimming pool 11 years later. After several members of the '40 New York Rangers used it as a chamber pot, the franchise had to wait 54 years before the fates let it win the Cup again—whereupon Mark Messier took it to a strip club.
But the appeal of the Cup is that it belongs to the players, for better or worse, and last week delivered an example of how good that better can be. Citizens of the Czech Republic had just begun to assess the toll taken by the worst flooding in 500 years: at least a dozen people dead and 200,000 more driven from their homes, numbers especially large for a nation of roughly 10 million. Then, as floodwaters began to recede, the Cup arrived for its previously scheduled tour through the towns that had produced four of the Detroit Red Wings who won it in June. The homecoming players—defensemen Jiri Fischer, 22, and Jiri Slegr, 31, forward Ladislav Kohn, 27, and freshly retired goal tender Dominik Hasek, 37—might have let these circumstances rain, almost literally, on their parades. Instead they turned each appearance into a rally that was equal parts fundraiser and consciousness-raising session. "We want to drink champagne from the Cup again, like we did the night we won it," Hasek said upon greeting the trophy in Prague on Aug. 14. "At the same time we have to think about the people who lost their houses, about the people who are in deep trouble. I think this may be the first time the Cup is in a place where the situation is so difficult, and we want to use it to help."
Given the size of the country, the apocalyptic results of a fortnight of steady rain were almost certain to touch at least some of the 60-plus Czechs who graced NHL rosters last season. Floodwaters inundated Strakonice, the hometown of Calgary Flames goalie Roman Turek, and Pisek, home to Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Stan Neckar. UNESCO ranks the Renaissance town of Cesky Krumlov as a world heritage site—second only to Venice—for its perfectly preserved historic center, to be sure, not for having produced Penguins defenseman Josef Melichar. But Cesky Krumlov, like a skein of other towns along the Vlatava River and its tributaries, was briefly a Bohemian Atlantis.
On Aug. 14 the Cup arrived in Prague, where a hastily erected "wall of hope," made of interlocking pieces of aluminum, had spared the Old Town Square. ( Washington Capital Jaromir Jagr's subterranean sports bar was also saved.) The Cup's next stop, in Uherske Hradiste with Kohn, in the southeast, also escaped the worst. But a day later the Red Wings came face-to-face with the flooding, in Fischer's hometown of Beroun, just southwest of the Czech capital. There the Berounka River had spilled its banks and left Hus Square under two feet of water. Floodwaters stood even higher inside the rink where Fischer had learned to skate. "It's not about the Stanley Cup right now," Fischer said. "We're happy it's here, but we have to look at things from the perspective of people whose lives have changed way more than ours."
By Friday, as Slegr chauffeured the Cup in his Mercedes E320 to his hometown of Litvinov near the German border (Stanley luxuriated in the back, strapped in by a seat belt), the Red Wings had begun passing collection boxes in each town. In Litvinov the four went forward with a previously planned auction of autographed team pictures, jerseys, gloves and sticks, but replaced the original beneficiary—a fund to build playgrounds for lads—with the newly homeless. When the bidding lagged, Hasek sent a couple of employees of his Dominator clothing company into the crowd to goose the action and wound up paying for most of the items, including one of his signed goalie sticks, which went for 28,000 Czech koruny—almost $900.
All this was prelude to an 8�-hour extravaganza on Sunday in Hasek's hometown of Pardubice, a safe 60 miles east of Prague. Bands pumped out rock music, cheerleaders twisted, models swanned in Dominator wear, and Red Wings highlights played across a big screen. Lest the crowd forget, every hour organizers reprised a five-minute video montage with scenes of the floodwater destruction. The Wings auctioned another $20,000 in merchandise, and Hasek cut deals with the performers to donate their appearance fees to the cause. Then he promised to match any money raised—but no less than the $100,000 team bonus he received for winning the Stanley Cup. He also challenged the NHL to chip in, which it did. The league said it is pledging at least $10,000 to the relief efforts.
The Czech Red Wings chose to confront a natural phenomenon with a kind of supernatural one, for Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley's Cup has always had a mystique to match its size (35� inches), weight (35 pounds) and tradition (109 years). Perhaps that's because many players who have never won the Cup refuse on superstitious principle to touch it until they do. Or because the winners always return the Cup to the Hall of Fame in Toronto so it might be awarded anew the following season. ( Major League Baseball, the NFL and the NBA all present a new trophy each year, and always to the owner of the championship team.) Or because engravers add the name of every player on each championship team. (When a silver-plated band on the base of the trophy fills up, it's detached and shipped to the Cup's curators at the Hall of Fame, whereupon a blank band is added to the base.) Nothing gets invoked more often than the Cup when players demand a trade or vow to play on or to hang it up. Hasek's recent decision to turn down an $8 million contract offer and retire can be traced directly to the Cup: In July 2001 he forced the Buffalo Sabres to trade him to Detroit because he wanted a better shot at winning his first Cup; then he quit because, having won one, he considered his career complete.
Steffi Graf never took her Wimbledon plates home to Br�hl to frisbee them through the streets. The Cup, by contrast, is the players' to share with their fans. The NHL permits every member of a championship team to spend a day doing whatever he pleases with the Cup. (After Messier took Stan the Man to that strip joint, the league added the stipulation "within reason.") Czechs have gotten used to the Cup's summering in their country. Simply put, an NHL team doesn't win the Cup anymore without someone from the nation that took the gold medal in the first Olympic hockey competition that included pros (in Nagano in '98) and has won three of the last four world championships (all without Hasek or Jagr).
Where does the Czechs' strength come from? Years of playing the mighty Soviets—to whom, some Czechs will tell you, they were occasionally obliged to lose for political reasons—led the national team to develop a defensive but opportunistic style marked by the counterattack. And even though Slovakia's split from the old Czechoslovakia, in 1993, diminished the pool of talent, the Czech Republic's relatively sparse population encourages a cooperative style. "We think like a team, not as individuals," says forward Robert Reichel of the Toronto Maple Leafs. "When we play, we pull together."
That attitude may be part of the national character. Long before Dominik, the Czechs produced another Hasek, a writer named Jaroslav, whose most beloved invention is a soldier named Svejk. Though an ordinary grunt in the Austro-Hungarian army, Svejk confounds the powerful with guile, collusion and obstinacy. He foreshadowed the way the Czechs play hockey: with resourcefulness, an all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit, and those sudden counterattacks. Last week each of those traits—and perhaps even the sometimes maddening Czech tendency to overpass—was on full display.