Hockey has an unwritten rule: Only NHL champions get to lift the Stanley Cup. But for a group of five men, breaking this rule is their job description.
Phil Pritchard’s duty is handling the trophy and transporting it around the globe. The 56-year-old Hockey Hall of Fame curator has been a Keeper of the Cup so long — 30 years — that he can’t remember how he got the job. His first week at the Hall of Fame, Pritchard was tasked with putting the Cup on display in North Toronto. From there, the position evolved.
“Looking after trophies, it has kind of grown into something almost bigger than the sport,” Pritchard said. “It’s about the trophy and what it means to sports in general.”
Trophy handling is not exclusive to the Keeper of the Cup. While the NHL uses the same trophy handlers every year, NBA champions are tasked with finding their own wranglers for the Larry O’Brien trophy, which was first handed out in 1977.
Katie Smith, a 34-year-old, Grandville, Mich., native, maintained the Golden State Warriors’ trophies in 2015 and 2017. Like Pritchard, the job came to her. There was no grand selection process: She was a part-time special events coordinator for the Warriors when she was tasked with watching the trophy.
“Sports people are so superstitious,” Smith said. “They would never think ahead for, ‘Oh, how are we going to handle this trophy?’ But [after the NBA Finals], they realized they needed to add someone to do it full-time because of all the event requests he was getting.”
“He,” by the way, is the Larry O’Brien trophy, though Smith calls him Larry.
Averaging 15 appearances a month during the summer of 2015, Larry got popular quickly, making more than one appearance per day that October. The trophy again has been busy this summer. Corporate sponsors requested meetings. Fans pined for selfies. Basketball campers wanted to touch it. Larry made appearances in players’ hometowns, including St. Louis, Memphis and Kevin Durant’s old stomping grounds of Seat Pleasant, Md.
Traveling with the Stanley Cup or Larry O’Brien trophy requires special accommodations. Pritchard gives himself several extra hours at the airport to get the Cup through security, and he checks the unmarked black shipping case with red velvet interior as oversized luggage.
While Smith sits in coach, Larry flies first class in his Pelican case, often used by photographers, which surrounds the trophy with foam. This differs from the road box the NBA provides, which includes laser-cut foam and the iconic blue Tiffany & Co. bag the trophy initially arrives in.
Problems can arise, such as TSA agents not wanting the Cup to be checked or the trophy needing to be taken out of its case, bubble-wrapped and stored in the overhead compartment. But traveling also presents enjoyable moments, like a TSA guard recognizing Larry’s silhouette on the security monitor or two Minnesota hockey fans recognizing the Cup at a Paris airport and creating “havoc.”
“They freaked out,” Pritchard said.
Coming up with the travel schedules for the trophies takes collaboration by officials from the teams, athletes and leagues. After the schedule is finalized, the championship team, in both hockey and basketball, pays the travel fees for the handler, including transportation, housing and meals.
Both trophies have seen crazy celebrations. This summer, the Cup has gone swimming in the Georgetown Waterfront Park fountain, been used for a keg stand on “The Tonight Show” and acted as a serving dish for caviar in Russia. In past years, it has gone backpacking in Colorado, visited a Finnish sauna and been flown to Minnesota to be used in a christening.
Larry has been hiked like a football by two-time MVP Stephen Curry and doused in Hennessy by teammate Jordan Bell. In 1994, the trophy was defiled following the Houston Rockets’ title: Amid the celebration of the championship win in the locker room of The Summit, where the Rockets had beaten the New York Knicks in Game 7, the ball atop the trophy fell off.
“We broke that son of a gun,” former Rockets forward Matt Bullard said.
Pritchard’s favorite moments tend to be those that don’t garner as much attention.
“It’s pretty emotional when we are driving in [a player’s] hometown and he will say: ‘Hey, my coach used to live there. I wonder if he’s still there.’ We stop, and he goes up to the door and knocks,” Pritchard said. “Or, to be sitting in the car while a player is sitting in the cemetery and you are kind of watching but giving him private time, it’s unbelievable. … We all can have parties and stuff, but it’s the people that made them work that hard to have that party that means so much to them.”
Smith’s closest relationship was with former Golden State center Zaza Pachulia, who signed with the Detroit Pistons earlier this month. Pachulia had Smith accompany him and Larry to his native Republic of Georgia, where he took her to dinner every night and set up special tours for her.
“We are honored to spend one of the biggest days of their career with them, so we get to know them quite a bit,” Pritchard said.
He loves when the Cup is filled to the brim and players invite family and friends to drink out of it. Pritchard had that opportunity in 1997, when the Cup made its way to Russia for the first time. Hesitant to take a sip given another unwritten rule that states only champions may drink from it, the Keeper of the Cup was pushed by former Detroit Red Wing Igor Larionov: “If you don’t [take a drink], we’re not letting you out of our country.”
There aren’t nearly as many rules surrounding the Larry O’Brien trophy. Smith is more interested in keeping up its appearance. Curry once left scuff marks on it, which she found horrifying.
Maintenance is key. Smith wears latex gloves every time she handles Larry, but the rubber material doesn’t compare to Pritchard’s famous white, 100-percent-cotton gloves. He has never worn the same pair twice, and he goes through a pair every one to two weeks, or roughly 30 to 40 a year.
The trophies also require daily cleaning. While soft detergent is typically used, Pritchard suggests an everyday material: hotel shampoo. Oil collection can cause damage, particularly on the name engravings on the trophies, which are carved by hand.
Speaking of those engravings, because of the length of the process, “I guess a little secret of the trade for us is that we have two trophies for each year,” Smith said. It takes about six weeks for Tiffany & Co. to inscribe the trophy, so during this time, the championship team uses Larry’s twin.
The Stanley Cup has a replica as well, but that one doesn’t make any public appearances; it’s displayed in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The NHL waits until mid-September to have the Cup engraved with the winning players’ names, which takes silversmith Louise St. Jacques up to 10 days. But the process starts the day after the Cup is won, with the winning team creating the list — and the league has run out of room.
To make more room, the league regularly removes one of the Cup’s top rings, which is retired to the Hall of Fame, and adds a new ring to the bottom. The Capitals will be the first team on the latest new portion. The NHL has considered adding more rings or creating a new Cup altogether, but neither was the right move.
“I think it was just a matter of realizing that they didn’t want to make it any taller; the shape has become iconic through the years and decades,” said Kevin Shea, the Hall of Fame’s editor of publications and online features. “It was a pretty easy decision at that point to say, ‘Okay, so what we’ll do is take the top ring off, move them all up and put a new one at the bottom.’ ”
“The history is still there,” Pritchard added. “It doesn’t change; it just evolves.”
Smith’s trophy-handling days may be over — she left the Warriors in February to help her wife build her psychotherapy business — but Pritchard doesn’t plan on giving up the Cup anytime soon.
“Every time I get the opportunity to walk it out on the red carpet to start a new chapter, it’s amazing,” he said. “Hockey fans are so passionate about the game and trophy and the history and respect of it. It adds to that championship lure. To be a part of it in a small way is pretty cool.”