This child is clearly troubled by the ambiguity inherent in the object he's holding.

Here are Terry Sawchuck’s shoulder pads, barely more than felt and worn to fraying at the edges. Here is a Jean Beliveau stick, circa 1969, with just the faintest hint of a toe curve. Here is Mario Lemieux’s junior jersey, adorned with some strange symbol like a three-dimensional rendering of a Tetris piece. Here are some NHA skates, low leather boots and barrel-mounted blades. Here are moth-eaten Bruins sweaters, knit from wool in stripes of caramel and mustard.

These are the holy relics of hockey. They were never meant to be venerated. Hockey stuff is not the stuff of forever, it’s the stuff of now, and it’s meant to be sweated into, spat on, bled through, and thrown away. Used hard and used up. Most sticks end their lives broken in a trash can, along with gloves worn through at the palms and skates gone soft at the ankles. That’s how it’s supposed to be.

But every now and then it doesn’t go that way. Sometimes, because a piece of gear was on a particularly special body at a particularly special moment, it doesn’t get tossed. Someone squirrels it away somewhere, in a closet or a basement or a cedar chest, and then some twenty years later when that specialness has had time to blossom into legend, they dig it up and send it to the Hockey Hall of Fame, where we can go to ooh and ahh over it while assiduously trying not to think about all the bodily fluids it must have absorbed in its pre-sanctified days.

All museums- and make no mistake, the Hockey Hall of Fame is a museum- are temples to the mysterious, quasi-holy power of original things. We venerate an authentic, original thing with an almost reflexive veneration, as though we could really feel the aura of its antiquity wafting off it like the odor of sanctity off the tibia of St. Barbara. At some point, when an object crosses the line from merely old to fully antique, it gains power over us. We stop thinking of it as a thing to be used and start thinking of it as a thing to be stared at.

Perhaps these artifacts are our sense of immortality. When the moment has passed and the people who were there have died and the living memory has faded, the objects remain. A record from the 1940s is nothing to us now except a number on a page, but when you see the stick that shot the shot and the puck that hit the twine and the dark eyes of some long-dead star staring out from the celebratory photos, self-same puck in hand, it seems a little bit more really real. These things are the same things that they used- not copies, not replicas, not photos or pixels, but the real-real objects. We carefully preserve the things in these climate-controlled cases to preserve the echoes of the moment, and maybe some small part of a human soul.

I am lingering over an old helmet and thinking these so-deep thoughts when a group of teenage girls whirl past me with the chattery bustle that only teenage girls in a group of four or more can generate.

“So we can touch it?”

“Yeah!”

“Like, really touch it? However we want?”

“It’s not, like, illegal or anything?”

“No, you can totally touch it, anywhere.”

“You can’t pick it up or anything.”

“Yeah, but you can still touch it.”

“Are you sure?”

And then they’re gone out of the room again, leaving all us quiet elders staring reverentially into our glass boxes. There’s only one place they could be going.

There’s only one thing you can touch here.

***

It stands on a platform under a great glass dome, upstairs in an airy room with the warm afternoon sun pouring in the windows. Most of the artifacts in the Hall of Fame pass their days in a perpetual, artificial dusk, underground like they’d been buried with their dead. The Stanley Cup, though, lives in the light.

We look at it from afar for a while. It’s someone else’s turn, a group of three friends who are getting their picture taken with it. They cluster tightly around it’s body, one with an arm around it’s back, another with a hand on its belly, big smiles all around. The old man working the camera gives directions- you crouch down a little more, you lean to the left a bit, keep your eyes open- and takes several shots. Then he hands them a card and they, with a few final loving strokes, make their way to the gift shop. My turn.

Compared to the other trophies in the room, which are all in glass cases and polished to a positively retina-searing shine, the Stanley Cup is slightly dingy up close. Not too much, just a little. It’s got fingerprints all over it and a little bit of tarnish around the edges of the rings. The deep parts of the engravings are black with old dirt. It’s still a big shiny thing, but get close enough to fog it with your breath and you can see the evidence of its ongoing use. The holiest relic in the whole place, and it’s the only one not kept in an isolation tank.

“This isn’t the real one.” His statement breaks my reverie like a hammer on glass.

“No?”

He’s running a finger over the names on one side, as if he could feel whether or not they were true. “No. There’s no errors.” He pulls me over by the arm, to where he’s examining some of the Oilers dynasty inscriptions. “Look, Peter Pocklington put his dad’s name on the Cup, and they had to X it out later. The real Cup would have a row of Xs along here.”

The old caretaker, sitting on a bench of to the side, snorts derisively. “That’s not this one, that’s the other one. They’ve got it downstairs somewhere. There’s two, y’know. They switch ‘em around sometimes.”

Julian looks up. “Well, one’s the Presentation Cup, right? The one that goes to the winners every year, the one that travels around. The other’s just a replica.”

The old man shakes his head. “Nah, they use ‘em both. Depends which one’s cleaner, or if something needs repairs. Either way.”

“Wait, so the Cup-winning team doesn’t necessarily get the same one every year?”

“ ‘Course not, otherwise why would they have two ? Sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s t’other.”

Julian is skeptical. This is not the official story. The official story is that one of the two identical big Stanley Cups is the Presentation Cup, the one with the errors that is given to the winning team every year, and the other is a replica which sits in the Hall of Fame when the Presentation Cup is traveling, and occasionally does other media appearances on its behalf. This is the NHL’s compromise attempt to preserve the aura of the original.

I’d like to believe the official story, that there is still only one Cup that gets passed around as ‘The Cup’, despite the fact that there are actually three Stanley Cups currently in existence. It’d like to think this old caretaker doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about, with his blithe insistence that the League just switches the trophies around according to their whims. I’d like to trust the NHL when it comes to the authenticity of the most storied prize in all of professional sports.

But they’ve lied about it before.

***

It was 1962, and the Stanley Cup was getting fragile. This is, in itself, not surprising. It was seventy years old, and it had been a hard seventy years. In the time since Lord Stanley donated it as the Dominion Challenge Cup, it had been awarded to dozens of teams and partied with hundreds of players. It had been used as a chair, a planter, an incinerator, and a urinal. It had been filled with more kinds of liquor than most of us could name. It had been kicked, burned, thrown, scratched with nails and left on the side of the road. And in 1961, it had nearly been stolen, when a disgruntled Canadiens fan broke into its display case in Chicago and attempted to carry it back to Montreal.

It was a raucous life for a Victorian punch bowl, and the wear was starting to show. The thing had been soldered and hammered back into shape so many times, buffed and polished so frequently that it was literally eroding, the silver itself becoming thin and brittle. It was a crisis: the lifestyle of the Stanley Cup, the very traditions that made it so beloved and so desirable, were destroying it.

And so the NHL did the only practical thing a League can do in such a predicament: they commissioned a copy.

The man who made it was Carl Petersen, a Danish silversmith who had been the official engraver of the Cup since 1948. Over the winter of 1962 and into 1963, he carefully copied the structure of the original trophy, shaping the bowl and the rings to look exactly like the original. Then he got a friend, Barry Wilmont, a Canadian who’d lived most of his life in Denmark, to do the engravings.

It was painstaking, delicate work. Wilmont kept both trophies on cushions on his dining room table, throwing blankets over them when he had company. He used dyes and paper to lift impressions of the inscriptions from the original and press them over the copy. Everything had to match exactly, not just the names and the dates but the size, script, and depth of every word. Every space and every serif, down to the very smallest, had to be identical.

When he had finally finished copying the inscriptions, he copied the damage. The slight dents from the famous drop-kick into the Rideau Canal were delicately remade with hammers, the scratches Lester Patrick’s kids made with nails artfully chiseled into place. The work took four months to complete, and when it was done, the two Cups were indistinguishable to the eye. Only touch could tell the difference- the bowl on the original was frail, like glass, compared to the sturdy new silver of the replica.

Wilmont delivered both Cups, the original and the copy, to the NHL in the summer of 1963. He was instructed to tell no one about what he had done for at least ten years, and the original Cup was- we think- deposited in a bank vault in Ottawa. The following spring, in 1964, when the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup, they were presented with the Petersen/Wilmont copy. They were told that it was the original.

It was a forgery. It sounds harsh but there’s really no other honest way to say it: the NHL forged the Stanley Cup. They made a precise copy and told everyone, the public, the caretakers, and the rightful winning team, that it was the real thing. They kept up the lie for three years.

I wonder if there was any outrage in 1967, when the League finally came clean about their forgery. If there was, I have found no reference to it, but it seems curious that the hockey world would just accept both the substitution and the deceit quietly. Perhaps everyone, having already been fooled for three years by the replica, was simply too embarrassed to complain. Perhaps they were ashamed to learn that they could not, in fact, sense the aura of authenticity that supposedly distinguishes an original from a copy. Perhaps they realized they just didn’t care all that much.

By the time the third Cup was made, in 1993, the NHL didn’t need to bother to cover it up.

***

This is the strange paradox of the Stanley Cup: it is not what it is. We talk about it in the singular- the Stanley Cup- and tell tales of its travails and adventures over the past hundred-plus years as though they had all happened to the same object. We make a big to-do about how it is the most unique trophy in all sports, about how the winners never really get to own it but only spend time with it for a while, about how it is never copied, about how there is only one. The superstitions that accrue to it, like the rule about how a player cannot touch it unless he’s won it, imply that it is one, singular, unique object.

At this point, the Trinitarian nature of the Cup has become something everyone knows but sort of pretends they don’t, a kind of open secret. The Hockey Hall of Fame will tell you there are three Cups and explain the differences between them, they’re not hiding it, but at the same time you’re never going to walk up into that holy of holies and see two of ‘em sitting next to each other on that platform. It would blow people’s minds in all the wrong ways. We’ve reached a point where we can accept that there’s more than one Cup so long as we never have to see more than one at the same time.

“People don’t even want to see the real Cup anymore. It’s right over there, in the vault, I always tell ‘em, but half of ‘em don’t even want to go look.” He waves his hand towards the opposite end of the room. “Nobody cares about the real Cup.”

This is what should be known as the Curmudgeon’s Dare. When some older person makes a blanket statement about what younger people no longer understand/appreciate/care about, if you are a younger person, you are more or less obligated at that point to defend your generation by demonstrating that you do so understand/appreciate/care. So, of course, we go to the vault.

The original Stanley Cup, or the real Stanley Cup, or the first Stanley Cup, however you want to think about it, looks- as advertised- just like the other two. Smaller, of course. It’s been stripped of all its rings, reduced back to its original form, a nice silver bowl perched on a nice dark wood base. If there is any visible difference between it and the big shiny thing in the next room, it is only a slight variation in color- the original Cup has a little bit of a golden tinge to it, as if were a sepia photograph of the colder, brighter bowl on the replica trophy. But even that may only be the trick of the light. In every other way, it is completely identical. It is displayed decorously out of the sight lines of the replica on the podium. In a glass case.

The official story is that you can touch the Cup, like the teenage girls said. The official story is that it is not like all these other artifacts, that it is not some delicate relic in a clear coffin, but a living thing. The Stanley Cup isn’t supposed to be some rarified princess prize, it’s a muscular, worldly thing, the kind of trophy that goes to strip clubs and gets filled with tequila and jumps in swimming pools. The Stanley Cup plays out in object form the way we like to think of hockey players- perennially young and strong and irreverent. This is it’s unique mythology, the substance of it’s legend, the idea that it survives forever under all our hands, that it is the one miraculous object that can be hugged and kissed and danced with and thrown and burned and beaten and screwed and filled with everything and hoisted again and again and again and pawed by thousands upon thousands of eager fans and still survive. It’s the toughest trophy in sports.

It’s all a lie, though. Or maybe not a lie, but a convenient fiction. The Stanley Cup got old. It got old and worn down and used up, it reached a point where it just couldn’t party anymore. That’s the thing about use and love, it wears down objects as surely as people. They are no more immortal, out in the wide world and exposed to the elements, than we are. At some point, if they are going to endure, they have to be mummified, or they will decay and eventually disappear.

We cannot have it both ways, we cannot have an original, authentic object and also put it through what the Cup is supposed to go through. The NHL, given the choice between the eventual destruction of the original and foisting a replica on the world, chose the latter. We’ve been playing along ever since, believing with a belief born of theological practice that although the Cup is three, it is one. And we can still touch it.

Comments (7)

  1. The Greek philosophers, Aristotle in particular, gave much thought to the essence of a thing vs the form of a thing. The form of an object is something real that you can experience with your five senses. For example, you might be sitting in a comfortable leather recliner right now, or you might be sitting in a hard backed folding chair. Those are forms of objects. You’re still sitting in a chair either way, and both have the essence of a chair. You can look at a chair and you know its a chair because it has the essence of a chair even if the form of it is something you’ve never seen before in your entire existence.

    The three Stanley Cups differ in form, but they all have the essence of the Stanley Cup, and that’s what makes it the Cup.

    Because it’s the Cup.

  2. This article served specifically to remind me of one thing: my greatest regret in my life is that i’ll never win the stanley cup.

    Maybe that dream effectively died a decade-and-change ago at age 17 (despite prolonging the agony a couple years), and maybe I’m doing really well if that’s my greatest regret.

    But its still the one thing in the world – that if happens to pop up into my head – that really takes the wind out of any particular moment. And then you move on, to working and family and travel and all the wonderful things life has to offer, that make life worthwhile.

    But that one dream, from childhood, all the hours of arenas and fantasy and driveways and television, the reason we kept playing when there were girls and tv and partying and school, and a million other distractions, is still always the Cup.

  3. Is the Dread Pirate Roberts any less feared because he’s not the original? Anything physical disintegrates with time and use, but the idea remains the same as long as there is a vessel in which to invest it.

    At any rate, only the cup of the trophy itself could remain unchanged, as bands are removed and fresh ones added to make room for new winners. The Cup has always been changing, morphing object, with a singular purpose and ideal: To win. I like to think that it rather reflects the changing nature of the game in that regard.

    When I saw the original cup, it was almost mythic to see that the bands had been disassembled and displayed.

  4. “The Stanley Cup plays out in object form the way we like to think of hockey players- perennially young and strong and irreverent.”

    Well said.

    When I saw the “original” Stanley Cup in the vault, dissected and dismembered, I couldn’t help but feel detached. This is not the award my generation of players carried around the ice. I still couldn’t touch the “display” Cup though. It’s something that doesn’t belong to me, and maybe that’s the point.

  5. “The Stanley Cup got old. It got old and worn down and used up, it reached a point where it just couldn’t party anymore.”

    actually, this is a perfect parallel to the players who play for the cup. maybe it all makes sense when thought of in this context.

  6. Screwed? I am not sure that I understand what you mean.

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