Hockey Central

The Stanley Cup Mystique

When Lynn and Muzz Patrick discovered the Stanley Cup in a cardboard box down in the basement of their home in Victoria, British Columbia, they did what any grade-school-age students would be likely to do — especially if their father happened to be Lester Patrick, already a legend in hockey.

They got themselves a nail and attempted to add their names to those of the already anointed. Not being blessed with the powers of Nostradamus, they couldn't even guess their names would be engraved there eventually as members of the New York Rangers.

More than 70 years later, three Russian-born players, their names freshly cut into the Cup, were holding it aloft to the thunderous cheers of 62,000 fans attending a soccer match in Moscow. Among those paying homage to the Stanley Cup was Boris Yeltsin, head honcho of all the Russians.

The caper of Lester Patrick's kids didn't even make the local prints, of course, but the pilgrimage to Moscow of Igor Larionov, Vyacheslav Kozlov and Viacheslav Fetisov was big news, even in areas that still hadn't entered the debate on the neutral zone trap.

Thoughtful citizens were prompted to comment on the mystique of this trophy which the three members of the Detroit Red Wings had lugged back to Moscow. Wasn't that the same bowl that a group of Ottawa celebrants once drop-kicked into the Rideau Canal, after they had closed one bar too many? Nobody seemed to accuse them of being iconoclastic. In fact, people laughed about it when the tale was rehashed at smokers and banquets.

Yes, it is the same old basin, the one that Lord Stanley of Preston left for hockey-crazed colonials when he completed his gig as the sixth Governor-General of Canada. But absolutely nobody, drunk or sober, is kicking the Stanley Cup around any more. Those days definitely are over. And you can take this to the bank: the Stanley Cup probably is the most popular sports trophy in the world at the moment.

Certainly, it is the most recognizable. And it got that way strictly on merit — no costly promotional campaign of flashing lights and crashing cymbals.

It comes closer to being The People's Cup than any other trophy in sport. They stand in line for hours to get a look at it, to study the names of hockey idols past and present. The secret of its popularity is its availability. It goes where there are people. It's friendly.

During what qualifies as the most successful barnstorming tour in the history of professional sport, the Stanley Cup traveled more than 40,000 miles in 50 days, commencing with the 1998 NHL All-Star Game in Vancouver. In stops at 29 cities, it helped charities to raise more than $2 million. And it didn't find a town that wouldn't just love to have it back.

You might even guess the trustees now responsible for its custody studied the treatment of some other sports cups and decided that mistakes had been made. They might even have known the saga of the America's Cup, the Stanley Cup of yachting. It long enjoyed the title of being the most prestigious prize in sport. But how many would recognize it?

Yes, there are some startling parallels between the America's Cup, and the Stanley. Both have backgrounds in Britain. An English yacht club commissioned the design of the America's Cup as the prize for an 1851 race around the Isle of Wight. After an American yacht won it, the trophy, a bottomless silver ewer that cost $500, narrowly escaped being thrown out as trash from the home of a wealthy sailor.

When the overbearing and unpopular New York Yacht Club came into sole possession of the cup in 1857, the pompous directors knew exactly what to do with it. They secured it to a table in their palatial quarters with a 40-inch bolt. That's where it stayed for 132 years, while the yacht club, frequently revising the rules to their own needs, ran up what was accepted as the longest winning streak in sports history.

And good for the New York Yacht Club. But how many of the unsalty millions in the streets got to see the sport's most publicized award? And good for the trustees of the Stanley Cup, who realize they have something special and want the whole world to help them enjoy it.

Another historic trophy that spent too much time in seclusion, especially during its early years, is the Davis Cup. Dedicated to the purpose of stimulating friendly international interest in tennis, the big silver dish failed in its purpose mainly because of early domination by the Australians. By 1910, both the U.S. and Britain were pleading for a greater display of the cup, in order to revive flagging interest. Where, exactly was the Cup? It was on a sideboard at the home of Norman Brookes, one of the great Aussie players.

Yes, the National Hockey League has been criticized for taking over an award that the donor, Lord Stanley, directed should be for the championship of amateur hockey. At the time, there was no professional hockey and his lordship had no reason to expect there ever would be. His intention was to promote the popularity of hockey, which he and his family had learned to enjoy. It would be difficult to argue that the NHL has not done that. It has used the Stanley Cup to create enthusiasm for the sport in areas that previously were considered barren territory.

And there's more to come. Igor Larionov might have been more of a prophet than he intended to be when he spoke during that night at the stadium in Moscow. He said: "We (the Red Wings) have millions of fans who rooted for us all the way. It would be unfair not to bring this Cup and show it to them."

Those millions of fans — and millions more like them in Sweden and Finland and the former Czechoslovakia — are not going to be content to watch the tube indefinitely, especially after what happened at Nagano. They will want a piece of the action. Who's to say that European teams won't be competing for the Stanley Cup in the future?

Can't happen, you say? Less then 25 years ago, a deuce would get you 10 that a European player never would win one of the major awards in the National Hockey League. You would have been laughed out of the pub for suggesting a scenario such as the Jaromir Jagr story. Four score years before that, the thought of an American team winning the Stanley would have been seen to be equally far-fetched. However, probably buried in the archives, there may be one of the most important decisions ever made concerning the trophy. The Pacific Coast Hockey Association had granted franchises to Portland and Seattle. Was either one of these U.S.-based clubs eligible to play for Lord Stanley's award?

Quietly, it appears now, William Foran, a trustee of the Cup, announced the decision. The Stanley Cup, he said, was emblematic of world championship in hockey and no longer was a challenge trophy, open to bids from organizations or individuals with stars in their eyes.

If Foran had decided otherwise, the Stanley Cup might have disappeared down the same faint trail left by the Allan Cup, once the coveted chalice of senior hockey in Canada. For many years, it has suffered anonymity. Seattle, of course, did win the Stanley Cup in 1917, becoming the first team based in the U.S. to do so.

Those first winners deserve to be remembered. Unlike later winners, their names were never inscribed on the Stanley Cup. So here they are, the 1917 Cup champion Seattle Metropolitans: Harry Holmes, Roy Rickey, Ed Carpenter, Jack Walker, Bernie Morris, Cully Wilson, Frank Foyston, Jim Riley and Bobby Rowe. That guy, Morris, scored six goals in one game! In today's NHL, who wouldn't like to be his agent?

Unfortunately, it is true that some of the most colorful chapters in any sport took place during the era in which dreamers could challenge and play for the Stanley Cup. That can't happen now. But reason had to set in somewhere.

There is nothing in the background of any other North American sport that compares to the 1905 bid for Stanley's hardware. It was pure Hollywood stuff outlandish, ridiculous, senseless, laughable — but still admirable.

The gold diggers of the Yukon had a dream. It turned out to be a nightmare but give them credit for trying to prove something they believed — or maybe just suspected. They had a hockey team that could beat the great Ottawa Silver Seven.

Taking off from Dawson City, allegedly by dog team on December 9, 1904, they covered an estimated 4,000 miles by boat, train, even by foot, before they arrived at Ottawa on January 12, 1905. Part of the expenses came out of their own pockets. There was no per diem to take care of shoeshines.

The Silver Seven proved to be impatient hosts. Their attitude was: You're here. Let's get this over with. The gold digger crew scored four goals in the two-game series. Ottawa scored 32. Ottawa star Frank McGee couldn't seem to get warmed up in the opening game and the Yukoners boasted they had his number. McGee scored 14 goals in the second game. Another dream shattered.

There were even nasty rumors that the Silver Seven doctored the ice to ensure that little Rat Portage (Kenora) did not upset the giants to make another absurd shot at the Cup come true. Rat Portage had pulled out all the stops for its bid, hiring some of the best players of the day and equipping them with the new tube skates that were fitted with thin blades.

In the opening game, the Ottawa Silver Seven got an alarming surprise. Those new blades really did work as speedy Rat Portage trounced their hosts by a score of 9-3.

In the second game, however, the thin blades seemed to become a handicap. They sank into the soft ice. One explanation of the ice was that the rink had been flooded shortly before the face-off. There also was some mention of salt. Things like that did happen. And play became so rough that Mike Grant, the referee, donned a hard hat. So much for the question of who wore the first helmet in hockey.

Ottawa won the second and third games. The Portagers went home, poorer but smarter. They had expected to profit handsomely from the proceeds but that didn't work out either. Total receipts were $7,791 before expenses were deducted. That was an Ottawa count, of course.

So spare the sighs of regret for the old days. The truth is that competition for the Stanley Cup, before the NHL took over and got it organized, was pretty much a turkey shoot.

Dawson City may be out of Stanley Cup orbit today but Detroit is in. Los Angeles and Miami are in. Moscow may not be too far away. Take your pick when it comes to return on the entertainment dollar.

And that is not to say the NHL system has been flawless. There seldom has been a dumber ruling in a major sport than Frank Calder, the first president of the NHL made in 1925 when he fined and suspended the entire Hamilton club for demanding $200 per head for taking part in the playoffs.

But the magic of the Cup was powerful even then. The Hamilton franchise was sold at once to New York interests. Maybe the purchase money did come from rum-running, as was alleged, but the New York Americans, as they became known, demonstrated that hockey belonged in New York. Madison Square Garden jumped into the action and the NHL got one of its strongest franchises, the New York Rangers.

Chicago and Detroit followed within a matter of months in a flurry of expansion. But even the booming NHL had trouble weathering the Depression and World War II.

Jobs were scarce and times were hard in the early 1930s but people still responded to events such as Mud Bruneteau's goal of March 25, 1936 in Montreal — at 2:25 in the morning! It gave the Detroit Red Wings a 1-0 win after 176 minutes and 30 seconds in the longest game of Stanley Cup history. That broke the record of 104:46 of overtime set at Toronto on April 3, 1933, when Ken Doraty of the Maple Leafs scored the goal that beat Boston 1-0. These were events that helped people forget their troubles, at least briefly.

A student of the occult sciences may even be tempted to conclude the good old Stanley Cup enjoys powers to make chicken salad out of chicken feathers. A reference point would be the 1942 playoff season.

By this time, the league had dwindled to six teams. Money was plentiful but butter and automobile tires were rationed. Hockey players were in a different kind of uniform and the question was whether hockey would be able to hang on until peace was restored. There was no doubt about the public's attitude. You had to know somebody in order to get a ticket.

But the game needed a shot in the arm. Enter Hap Day as freshman coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Hap really was far from happy. His team was down three games to zip in a best-of-seven set with the Detroit Red Wings, managed and coached by one of the shrewdest men in hockey, Jack Adams.

It's hockey history now but it was front page news then how Day shook up his lineup and avoided elimination by winning the fourth game of the series, right in Detroit. The ceremonial champagne had to accompany the Red Wings back to Toronto.

But the Leafs won again. This time, it was a 9-3 blowout and the Red Wings realized they were in trouble. And they never did get into that champagne. Day, a teetotaler, fell off the wagon after the Leafs won the series four games to three. He dipped a finger into the bubbly and licked it.

The series became increasingly tense, of course, and a lively sidebar was provided when Adams got onto the ice during the fourth game at Detroit. League president Calder, who was on hand, somehow got the idea that Jolly Jack was about to tackle the referee, Mel Harwood. Adams said that conversation was all he had in mind. Adams was suspended.

Day went on to win the Cup in three successive seasons — the first time it had been done since the NHL took over Cup custody in 1926. It all added up to a publicity boom and applications for franchises from cities such as Cleveland, Los Angeles and San Francisco. All were rejected while the six-team league sailed serenely into an era of prosperity.

Even more momentous events were on the horizon to maintain the wave of popularity that the Leaf-Red Wings series had touched off. Can any coach in today's game picture himself looking along his bench and seeing Jacques Plante, Doug Harvey, Tom Johnson, Jean Beliveau, Boom Boom Geoffrion, Dickie Moore, Rocket Richard, Bert Olmstead, Henri Richard and Butch Bouchard — all them Hall of Famers?

A better question might be whether any general manager today could picture meeting such a payroll at current prices. Toe Blake had them all when he took his place behind the Montreal Canadiens bench for the first time in 1956. Rocket Richard, alone, was pro sport's best box-office property.

Toe was able to get his players to produce. Beliveau scored five goals in Toe's first playoff series. It was against the New York Rangers. In the finals, against Detroit, he potted seven more. Olmstead contributed eight assists in the two sets.

As just about every hockey fan knows, Blake won the prized jug in his first five tries behind the bench. It never had been done before and it almost certainly never will be again. Free agency, player agents and huge salaries have combined to make Toe's kind of team merely dream material.

Toe had to beat five other teams on his way to the Cup. Future coaches may have to defeat as many as 40 or even 50. The Europeans will be coming and the Asians are looking. One thing that can be said with assurance is that no city will monopolize the Cup as Montreal did through the glory years of Blake and Scotty Bowman.

That was a 15-Cup jog — of which eight were won by Toe's teams and five, including four in a row, by Scotty's. Never had two better rosters ever been billeted in the same town over a comparatively short period of time than those two dynasty teams. And, if it were possible to match them up in a series today, where would you put your pesos?

Would you go with the Pocket Rocket, the real Rocket, the Boomer (Geoffrion) and Le Gros Bill (Beliveau) or would it be with Bowman's crop of Hall of Famers?

Blake may have had a bit of an edge on offense, but Bowman wasn't exactly desperate in that area either. With sharpshooters such as Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Jacques Lemaire and Yvan Cournoyer, in full flight, no goalie ever liked to see the Bowman bunch coming.

Defensively, it had to be said that Bowman was not suffering either. In front of goalie Ken Dryden, he sent out Serge Savard, Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe and Brian Engblom who were among the game's greatest rearguards. Only one member of that group (Engblom) has escaped Hall of Fame attention. Robinson shares a record with Gordie Howe for most years in the Stanley Cup playoffs — 20.

At the end of the century, there will be a flurry of polls to declare the greatest feats of Cup achievement. Even people who never saw any of the top teams play will be invited to participate. Just tap out a 1-900 number and vote.

In any serious poll, the Bowman and the Blake teams will get serious consideration. Any coach will say that winning an important trophy is tough enough. Defending it, they'll say, is even tougher. No other team ever did a better chore of defending than the Blake and Bowman clubs.

Al Arbour's powerful Islanders of the early 1980s will get some votes and they will be well-earned. The Isles were not deep in marquee players but they are showing up in the Hall of Fame. Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and goalie Bill Smith already have made it.

In Mike Bossy, they had one of the most consistent goal-getters in Stanley Cup history. In three successive seasons, he scored 17 playoff goals, a feat not even Wayne Gretzky has duplicated. Twice during the Isles' triumphs, Mike's teammate Bryan Trottier was the leading scorer in the playoffs.

Partly because their achievements are so recent, but mainly because they have to be regarded as one of the finest teams ever assembled, the Edmonton Oilers of the Gretzky era will score heavily in the aforementioned end-of-century polls.

It's inevitable that they will be compared to the Canadiens of Blake and Bowman stewardship. Were they even better than those powerhouses? And where would they rate alongside those Detroit clubs of the early and mid-1950s?

Maybe it's all but forgotten now but the Red Wings of 1952 were hell on wheels when guys such as Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel were in full bloom. They swept the Canadiens and the Maple Leafs in eight straight games with goalie Terry Sawchuk logging four shutouts in Detroit. You know that record is for all time because there now are at least 16 teams in the playoffs.

The Edmonton Oilers, of course, don't have those four- and five-year winning strings to match the Bowman and Blake credentials. But five Stanley Cup possessions in seven years will get anyone's attention, especially since there are so many more teams to beat since expansion.

Even a casual glance at the Oilers' roster will impress any pollster. Wayne Gretzky, already acclaimed in one recent survey as the best player of the last 50 years, leads off. Then consider these names: Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Randy Gregg, Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Esa Tikkanen, Marty McSorley, Dave Hunter, Mike Krushelnyski. The beat goes on. If they are not the best team to come along, they at least are going to create some arguments in the bistros, where such decisions are challenged.

And they have left their skatetracks in the playoff computers. Since Gretzky holds most of the offensive records in the regular season, it's only right that many of the Stanley Cup laurels are his, too. His 122 playoff goals should stand for a long time unless Mark Messier and Jari Kurri enjoy huge late careers with teams that come up big in the playoffs. Gretzky's 260 assists look safe enough, too. His career points — 382 — can go to the bank. His closest pursuer, Messier, is almost 100 points behind him.

Polls may be nothing but window dressing, the critics are going to argue. They've got it all wrong when they say it about Stanley Cup polls. This is the People's Cup. And what the people say does matter.

For more than 100 years the Stanley Cup trophy has been the game's talisman, a focal point shared by players and fans. The shimmering silver bowl, collar and barrels have been displayed everywhere from Miami to Moscow where they have been admired and photographed by hundreds of thousands. The Cup's escapades — usually in the possession of a member of a winning team — are an action-adventure story all on their own. It's been the star of the show at small-town rinks and on late-night talk shows, all the while conveying the pride and joy of having reached hockey's pinnacle.