Because It’s the Cup

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Philip Pritchard, Keeper of the Cup - The Players' Tribune

I have been the “Keeper of the Cup” for 27 years. It’s been my responsibility to accompany the Stanley Cup on its journey to some of the most remote parts of the world. In that time, I have seen a lot of strange and amazing things. I’ve seen the top of the Cup filled with popcorn by Marty Brodeur’s kids on a trip to the movies and with spuds by Adam McQuaid’s potato-farmer family on tiny Prince Edward Island. I’ve seen it launched into swimming pools (thanks for the heart palpitations, Phil Bourque), taken to the tops of mountains, and used as the ultimate prize in nostalgic street hockey tournaments.

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I’ve had it strapped to my lap in tiny propeller planes to reach otherwise inaccessible parts of the Canadian wilderness. Once, after it took a tumble off a table during a wine-and-cheese party, I used a policeman’s wrench to buff out a dent on the floor of a men’s room (don’t worry, it returned to the party — it’s hockey). I’ve seen, by my rough estimates, more than 15,000 cans of beer poured into it.

The Cup is not perfect. It’s got 120 years of nicks and smudges, and the names aren’t all etched on straight. But it is an inanimate object with a personality. It is the most unique trophy in all of sports, and it has an aura that can’t be explained unless you understand what it means to hockey players. One story comes to mind.

I’ve seen, by my rough estimates, more than 15,000 cans of beer poured into the Stanley Cup.

In the fall of 1997, the NHL held it’s opening game of the season between Vancouver and Anaheim in Tokyo. The Canadian and Japanese embassies put together a little event for the two teams. We brought the Stanley Cup along and all these Japanese people were standing around admiring at the Cup. They were extremely respectful of it — they kind of tip-toed around it, almost in awe.

Trevor Linden was standing maybe 15 feet away in the corner. Trevor was a big, tough vet from Medicine Hat, Alberta. I noticed this well-dressed Japanese gentleman kept saying something to Trevor. He was motioning him over to the Cup like, “Go on over and take a look.” And Trevor’s throwing his hands up and saying, “No, no, that’s okay.”

Finally, Trevor turned and walked away.

The Japanese guy was confused. He walked over to me and said, “He wouldn’t come over to see it. I don’t understand.”

And I said, “Well, it’s a custom. He doesn’t feel like he deserves to see it yet.”

And the gentleman very seriously says, “Well, I don’t deserve it either then, right?”

I said, “Don’t worry, it’s just a hockey player thing.”

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That’s what the Cup means to these guys. In towns that produce a lot of NHL players, you’ll often have situations where a player has their Stanley Cup party and there’s a few other active players there. In Trenčín, Slovakia, there’s a whole bunch of guys — Zdeno Chara, Tomas Tartar, Marian Hossa, Marian Gaborik. When one of the guys wins the Cup, they all come to the party. I met Chara about four times before Boston finally won it. The guys who hadn’t won it yet would pay their respects and take photos with their friend, but they would make sure never to touch it.

After nearly three decades shepherding this big silver trophy around the world, I can still feel the power that it gives off. But it’s not all serious business. It often puts me in hilarious situations. Once, we were at a golf course for Patrick Roy’s day when this older woman came up and kept circling around the Cup. Usually people just standing there gazing at it for a few minutes or they take a picture. This woman wanted nothing to do with it. She was looking all around, searching for something. Finally, she came up to me and said, “Where are your coffee cups?”

I said, “Um, ma’am I don’t have any coffee cups.”

She said, “But you have the coffee urn right here!”

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A few years later, we were in Stockholm for Nicklas Lidstrom’s day. He had a party at a rink outside of Stockholm and a bunch if his friends were gathered around the Cup, asking me questions about the history like usual. They would ask a question to Niklas in Swedish, then he would translate to English, then I would answer, then he would translate it back into Swedish.

I thought this was odd because they all seemed to speak impeccable English, but Niklas explained that Swedes are so reserved that they don’t like to speak English unless they’re 100 percent sure that their grammar is correct. So I went along with it.

Another friend comes up and we go through the same translation routine, but this guy looks really familiar. When he walked away, I turned to Niklas and said, “Hey, wait a second. Is that Tommy Salo?”

Niklas nodded.

“He played for the Islanders and Oilers for like 10 years!”

Niklas nodded.

“I’ve had long conversations with him before … in English!”

Niklas just kind of shrugged.

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I have hundreds of stories, but the one trip I will never forget was taking the Stanley Cup to Russia for the first time after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1997. Three former Red Army players — Vyacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Vyacheslav Kozlov — had just won the Cup with the Detroit Red Wings. I remember Igor explained to me just how special it was for them to finally prove to the people back home that they could make it in North America. Honestly, I think they proved it to themselves, too. Igor told me the first time he came to North American was during the World Juniors in the early ’80s. Igor had been dubbed “The Russian Gretzky.” He said he remembers taking the first face-off against the Canadian team, and he lost the draw, and when he got to the bench after his shift, the coach said, “That’s Gretzky. That’s who you’re named after.” And Igor said, “Are you kidding? I’m not even close to that guy! Change my nickname!”

So for them to win the Cup after all they went through to make it to the NHL was very emotional. We took it to Red Square and the atmosphere was incredible. All these people were there cheering on Larionov, Fetisov and Koslov. After the parade, Fetisov wanted to take the Cup to Lenin’s tomb. He said he wanted to take a photo there to show how much had changed. It was a very symbolic thing. But when we got there, Fetisov wanted to actually take the Cup down into the tomb. You’re not supposed to bring in anything — no cameras, nothing. So Fetisov spent a long time trying to persuade the guards to let us in. And they knew exactly who he was. But they wouldn’t budge. Finally, after we took some photos, the one guard turned to Fetisov and said in Russian, “Hey, can I still have your autograph?”

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Even with all these stories, whenever people ask me what the most special part of my job is, I tell them about the only time I’m not with the Cup. Often, a player will take me aside during their day and say, “If you don’t mind, I would like to take the Cup to the cemetery for a while.”

In other sports, all you need is a ball and a park. In hockey, you need ice. You need people to take you to that ice rink. I’d say 95% of the players who win the Cup are from small towns. Sometimes, the rink is an hour away from the family farm. They count a lot of moms and dads, neighbors, older brothers and sisters … it takes a village to raise a hockey player.

To be able to bring back this big trophy that represents everything that they’ve worked towards their whole life, and to share that with the people who have helped them reach that goal, it’s just overwhelming for some people.

They don’t forget the ones who have passed on. Many players have taken the Cup to the gravesite of someone they’ve lost. Maybe it’s their sixth grade teacher who told them they could be something, or that first hockey coach who pushed them to be better, or the neighbor down the street who let them play street hockey in their driveway. The players remember everyone who was a part of it.

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I leave them at the gates to the cemetery, and they take the Cup from me and start walking in silence to share this moment with their loved one, and it’s an extremely emotional, extremely special experience. That moment makes all the long flights and lonely hotel rooms worth it.

There are 49 Super Bowl trophies out there. There is only one Stanley Cup. You don’t win it. You borrow it. But your name is etched on it for all of history.

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