The People’s Trophy

The Populist Tradition of the Stanley Cup

It is arguably the single most recognizable sports object in all of North America and Northern Europe—identifiable even by people who couldn't pick Wayne Gretzky out of a police lineup. When it enters a room in all its gleaming, silvery stateliness, people grow wide-eyed and reverent—even at The Village Voice, where it appeared on Monday, reducing its staff of wisecracking anarcho-syndicalists, fellow travelers, and cynics to a clutch of worshipful onlookers politely asking if it'd be OK to get their pictures taken with it.

It, of course, is the Stanley Cup, the ne plus ultraof sports trophies.

"I see this reaction all the time, everywhere I go," says Steve Ozimec, the "Keeper of the Cup" as designated by the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. "Yesterday at an event in New Jersey, there was a woman in a wheelchair who couldn't get up the stairs to where the Cup was. So I brought it down to her and gave it to her to hold. She broke down in tears." Ozimec is an upstanding young man from Oakville, Ontario, one of three people whose job it is to accompany the Cup wherever duty takes it. He wears white gloves, a crisp dark suit, and a forthright expression. He treats the Cup with the sincere reverence due any sacred relic or national treasure; he is the sports world's version of a Mountie or a Swiss Guard. "I never lift it above my head," he says. "I feel that I haven't earned the right; that's just for the players who've won it. But I do have dreams about the Cup. The last one I had, I dreamt the bowl portion shattered into hundreds of tiny shards. I didn't sleep well that night, I can tell you."

Since 1893, the Stanley Cup has been the most sacred geegaw in the world of hockey, gifted to the game by Lord Stanley of Preston, governor-general of the Dominion of Canada and chosen representative of Queen Victoria herself, as most any hockey fan can tell you. The stories surrounding the Cup have been told and retold so many times that they constitute a canon of myth, legend, and moral object lesson quasi-religious in scope: how a team from Dawson City, Yukon, traveled 4000 miles by dogsled, bicycle, and transcontinental railroad in 1904-05, only to be trounced by Ottawa; how the Cup was drop-kicked into the capital's Rideau Canal by celebrating members of another champion side (fortunately, the canal was frozen and the Cup was retrieved the next day); how members of the '24 Canadiens left it by the side of the road when they drove off after changing a flat tire; how a Habs fan stole it from a showcase at the Chicago Stadium in '62, and, when stopped while trundling it out the lobby doors and asked what he was doing, replied, "I'm taking it back to Montreal, where it belongs."

Somewhere along the line, the Cup became a personality in its own right. That moment may have come in the early morning hours of May 19, 1983, on Late Night With David Letterman. Denis Potvin, Bryan Trottier, and a few other Islanders, who a couple of nights before had won the Cup for the fourth straight time, accompanied it onto the show. Letterman exchanged a couple of perfunctory words with the Isles, dismissed them, but had the Cup placed on the second guest chair, where it spent the rest of the show sitting mutely yet stealing the show, while real live guests came out to plug their films and albums. Paul Shaffer, normally a font of irony as foil and setup man for the host's sardonicisms, was struck dumb by the sight of the Cup being treated in such a manner. Shaffer, of Thunder Bay, Ontario, mumbled a few things about having grown up in a place where the Stanley Cup was a holy object, then fell quiet, shamed into silence for what would be the only time in his two decades with Letterman.

Ever since, the Cup has come perilously close to being disrespected. One of hockey's great traditions is that every member of the winning team gets to have the Cup for 24 hours. Many players take it to their hometowns and invite all their friends to see it, and in recent years it was taken to Moscow and Prague by the Red Wings' Russians and Devils' Czechs. But then there were the times Theo Fleury slept with it after he won it as a Calgary Flame in 1989, or the rounds of strip clubs various Rangers like Mark Messier, Nick Kypreos, Esa Tikkanen, and Brian Leetch carted it to in 1994, after which it would have been advisable not to drink out of the basin until a thorough cleaning was undertaken.

Over the last couple of years, the Cup has starred in a series of ESPN promos for the hockey playoffs. The premise: how the players spent their day with the Cup. In one, Dallas goalie Ed Belfour was strapped into a Tilt-a-Whirl amusement park ride with the old goblet and screamed wordlessly, an appropriate line of dialogue for the man who, when arrested for disorderly conduct last year, offered the arresting officer a million dollars to let him go and then projectile-vomited all over him. This year's promos feature Devil Ken Daneyko and the Cup having lunch with former New Jersey governor Christie Whitman and, as if that's not disrespectful enough, Sergei Brylin and his wife bathing their baby in it. Horrors!

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