Of the nation’s four major sports, hockey ranks last in popularity. But its championship trophy, the Stanley Cup, is arguably the most famous of the batch. It’s also the oldest, dating to 1892 — 54 years before the National Basketball Association was born. In fact, the NBA was created partly to fill hockey arenas when the home teams were away. The Stanley Cup is the only one of the four trophies that isn’t replaced every year, and it has generated more myths than the three others combined. With the finals between the San Jose Sharks and the Pittsburgh Penguins beginning Monday, here are some of the biggest ones.
1. There’s only one Stanley Cup.
Part of the cup’s lore is that the same trophy gets presented every year, and that fans can go see it at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. “There’s only one,” reported one profile of Phil Pritchard, the Hall of Fame official who follows the cup wherever it goes.
But there are actually three.
After Queen Victoria appointed Lord Stanley of Preston to become Canada’s governor general in 1888, he and his children were quick converts to the sensation sweeping the nation: ice hockey. In 1892, he purchased a fancy punch bowl from Sheffield, England, for about $1,200 in today’s dollars, to be awarded to Canada’s best hockey team. The Hall of Fame shows off this fragile gem in a climate-controlled case, behind ropes, like the Mona Lisa.
After adding a series of rings to list all the winners, the trophy was nicknamed “The Stovepipe Cup.” In 1947, the National Hockey League replaced this somewhat silly-looking trophy with the redesigned “Presentation Cup,” which is the one players parade around the ice today. Since 1995, each player on the winning team has gotten custody of the cup for a day or two, when they take it home to Sweden, Slovakia and the former Soviet Union, among countless destinations. During those stops, the cup has been used for everything from a baptismal font to a dog’s food dish to a prop for the dancers at an Edmonton strip club.
Because the “Presentation Cup” travels about 300 days a year, the Hall of Fame created a third trophy in 1993, the “Replica Cup,” to keep on permanent display.
2. The NHL owns the Stanley Cup.
The NHL awards the cup to the winner of its playoffs, so it stands to reason that it owns the trophy. That’s how it works for every other league. A CNN timeline about the cup even says the league took “sole possession” of it in 1927.
Actually, the cup predates the NHL, and the league doesn’t own it.
Originally, Lord Stanley wanted the cup to go to Canada’s top amateur team, inspiring the Winnipeg Rowing Club, the Brandon Wheat Cities and the Rat Portage (Ontario) Thistles to challenge for it. In 1906, the town of Rat Portage changed its name to Kenora, and its team claimed its first and only cup the next year. (Good move.)
By 1915, the cup’s trustees made the competition a playoff between the champions of two professional leagues: the National Hockey Association (NHA) and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA). But the NHA was replaced by the newly formed NHL in 1917, and the PCHA merged with the Western Hockey League, which folded in 1926. The NHL was the last league standing, and the cup became its de facto trophy.
Although the trustees ceded control of the trophy to the NHL in 1947, they did not cede ownership. This seemingly insignificant distinction came to light in 2005, when the NHL canceled the 2004-05 season because of a lockout — the first time the cup went unclaimed since the Spanish Flu pandemic ended the 1919 finals. That 2004-05 season is recorded on the cup with three words: “SEASON NOT PLAYED.”
A group of disgruntled fans filed suit against the cup’s trustees during the lockout to go back to the original arrangement and allow teams from other leagues to challenge for it. This resulted in an odd settlement: If the league canceled the playoffs again, an Ontario court ruled, the trustees could award the trophy to a team outside the NHL, although the trustees have asserted they wouldn’t be required to.
3. All the winners’ are on the cupAll the winners names are on the cup.
The Stanley Cup is the only major team trophy with winners’ names engraved on it — and not just the teams. The cup lists players, team owners, presidents, general managers, coaches, assistant coaches, even trainers — more than 2,200 names in all. That includes 12 women, starting with Marguerite Norris, the president of the championship-winning Detroit Red Wings in 1954 and 1955.
But many of the early champions didn’t even get their team’s name on the cup. They didn’t start adding players’ names until 1925. And after Detroit piled 55 names on in 1998, the limit was set at 52. Today, players must have played 41 games (half the regular season) or one game in the Stanley Cup finals, and non-players must be officially linked to the club.
As a result, a few folks get left off the list every year. In 2014, Los Angeles Kings co-owner Ed Roski voluntarily removed his name to make room for someone else. The team later added Roski, making 53.
One name made it on that shouldn’t have: In 1984, Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington — yes, the heathen who traded Wayne Gretzky to L.A. — snuck his dad’s name on the list. The silversmith engraved it: Basil Pocklington. But when the trustees discovered the scam, they ordered the name struck out with 16 Xs.
The league occasionally permits teams to include players who couldn’t make the playoffs. These include Boston’s Ted Green, who suffered a fractured skull in a fight the year before the Bruins won it in 1970. A few days after the Red Wings won in 1997, star defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov and his teammates were celebrating in a limousine when the driver crashed into a tree, leaving Konstantinov permanently disabled. When the Wings repeated in 1998, Konstantinov’s teammates brought him on the ice in his wheelchair. Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman passed the cup to Konstantinov first, and the league agreed to engrave Konstantinov’s name alongside those of his teammates.
4. Touching the conference championship trophy curses your team to lose the Stanley Cup.
When a team wins the conference title to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup finals, an NHL official presents the captain with the Prince of Wales Trophy or the Clarence Campbell Bowl. Hockey legend has it that the lesser baubles are cursed, so the captains usually leave the trophies on the table, untouched, like two-week-old cake.
But the curse is far from foolproof. In 1995, New Jersey’s Scott Stevens took the Eastern Conference trophy into his team’s locker room. The next year, Colorado’s Joe Sakic picked up the Western Conference trophy and showed it off for the home crowd. In 1997 and 1998, Detroit’s Yzerman did the same. All four teams not only won the cup, they swept their opponents in four games. And to prove it was no fluke, those three captains grabbed their conference trophies again from 2000 to 2003, and their teams won all four years.
There is another long-held custom, however, that’s not about luck but respect: If you played in the NHL but didn’t win the cup, you are not to touch it. If anyone has violated that taboo, I’ve never heard about it.
5. The best regular-season team almost never wins the Stanley Cup.
If you’re a Washington Capitals fan, you’re probably convinced of this.
Since the NHL started awarding the Presidents’ Trophy in 1986 to the team with the best regular-season record, 30 teams have won it, and only eight hoisted the Stanley Cup the same year. With a success rate of 27 percent, you might think it’s better to leave the prize to someone else, but you’d be wrong — mostly.
True, winning the Presidents’ Trophy doesn’t guarantee anything other than a No. 1 seed, and many Presidents’ Trophy winners have crashed and burned. In the past decade, for example, three teams have cracked the 120-point mark in the regular season, and all three got knocked out by the second round. (Alas, two of those famous flops were the 2009-10 Capitals, and this year’s Capitals.)
But the odds of winning the cup only get worse when you go down the list. During that same span, of the 80 teams that were seeded fifth through eighth, for example, only two won the cup. The best odds? Even at 4 to 1, the Presidents’ Trophy winner is the favorite.
Moral of the story: Take the Presidents’ Trophy — unless you’re the Caps.