Second rite of spring: Stanley Cup playoffs
It’s been said that college basketball’s March Madness is the greatest tournament in American sports, but must I respectfully disagree.
For pure energy, action, and drama, no pageant in North American sports (and possibly the world) compares with the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Collegiate basketball players are amateurs and some may argue that NCAA tournament is more “pure” for that fact. But in the days of multimillion dollar athletic programs, million dollar collegiate coaches, and the fact that many collegiate athletes find their way into the NBA two years short of graduating, somehow the “purity” of amateur athletics is lost.
It can be argued that the Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy in sports to win – why? The championship requires 16 victories in a grueling two-month tournament. That’s two arduous months of vicious hits, special diets, continual travel, psychological gamesmanship and nagging injuries that can’t be spoken about in hockey’s unwritten code. In addition, seldom does a team make it through the playoffs without losing key players to serious injury.
But what is the mystique surrounding this cup that romantics often call hockey’s Holy Grail? In Arthurian legend, only Galahad, son of Lancelot, could look directly into the grail and behold its divine mysteries. But in modern times when the NHL circulates the cup to various NHL cities, people wait as long as three hours in line to have their photos taken with it, to touch it and to gaze upon it. No other trophy in sports commands that type of awe.
Perhaps part of the lore stems from the fact that the Stanley Cup is the oldest trophy professional athletes compete for in North America. But more notably, it may also be the most famous and most recognized sports trophy in the Western world.
Frederick Arthur, Lord Stanley of Preston and son of the Earl of Derby who was governor general of Canada from 1888 to 1893, purchased and donated a silver bowl for presentation to the Canadian amateur hockey champions in 1892. Today that bowl is known as the Stanley Cup.
The size and shape of the trophy we see on TV is significantly different from the one Lord Stanley purchased 110 years ago. The cup began as a simple silver bowl, but additional silver bands were added to the base one at a time to accommodate the names of the players on the winning teams year after year.
The current Stanley Cup is 35.5 inches tall and it weighs 34.5 pounds, including those silver bands. It was purchased for 10 guineas in 1892 ($48.67 U.S. at the time) and is insured for more than $80,000 today. But in reality, it is priceless.
A number of years ago, the NHL board of governors decided that the cup reached its maximum size. Now when a band is filled, an upper band is removed and placed at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto (two have been removed so far) – and there are spaces for seven more winning teams before this happens again.
The players on winning cup teams not only have their names engraved on the cup, but each gets to keep it for 24 hours, and in the case of foreign-born players even longer – a tradition with no equivalent in sport.
The Montreal Canadiens have won the most Stanley Cups (24) and have an outside chance of doing it again this year.
The cup has been to Russia, Japan, the Czech Republic and Switzerland. it’s also been to the top of Mt. Evans right here in Colorado.
The interesting part of the cup’s travels in the off-season is making sure the players don’t become overly zealous with it while showing it to family, friends and fans.
Players drink from it, have bathed their small children in it. iI’s found its way to the bottom of swimming pools and once spent on evening in a canal outside of Montreal.
The Stanley Cup playoffs take a physical toll on its participants unlike any other in sports. Winning the cup takes much more than skill, strength, endurance and grace on ice. Within the context of sport, the Stanley Cup playoffs are a battle of modernday warriors. Perhaps more than any other sport, winning it becomes a measure of who has the most heart.
That’s what fans have come to expect – speed, excitement, and heart! Talent, skill, brute strength and artistry all have their place, but the measure of an athlete’s intestinal fortitude is what playoff hockey is all about.
And for the uninitiated who may think that hockey is nothing more than a squad of goons running around the ice with clubs in their hands, I’ll ask just one question: “What sport gives an annual award to the most sportsmanlike and gentlemanly player each year?” You guessed it, it’s the National Hockey League. The award is called the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy.
So let the artistic mayhem continue all the way to the beginning of summer!
Butch Mazzuca of Singletree writes a weekly column for the Daily.