A thousand years ago, the world was full of magical things. They were literally everywhere, from Japan to Peru, New Zealand to Norway, so many of them you could hardly stumble into a town anywhere without hearing about the Amazing Such-and-Such of So-and-So and it’s miraculous powers. The Cup of Jamshid, which reflected the whole world; the Hammer of Thor, which could not be destroyed; the Necklace of Harmonia, which conferred perfect beauty. There were fortune-telling mirrors and clothes of invisibility and about a hundred different fruits and vegetables of immortality, and don’t even get me started on all the swords, daggers, and spears. Every culture, in every country across the entire Earth has some kind of myth about an enchanted slashing weapon. If all the legendary blades in human history were real you could arm the entire population of modern China and still have some left over. Once upon a time, we all believed in magical objects.
The Hockey Hall of Fame is a refurbished nineteenth century bank in the heart of downtown Toronto. Its trophy room is a big ornate hall in the slightly stuffy British mode of all decent Toronto architecture, which is to say it has high ceilings and tall windows and wood panels and a colorful skylight, and all the hardware looks very shiny and impressive indeed in all that big space and natural light.
Unfortunately, this story does not take place in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It takes place in the Hockey Hall of Fame archives, which are housed above a rink in Etobicoke. Now, if you know anything about either rinks or archives, you will immediately understand that this must be a very dull place. Both are utilitarian kinds of spaces, mostly designed according to requirements of storage and climate control. They are uniformly chilly, fluorescent, and beige. Nothing looks impressive under either rink or archival conditions.
I wasn’t expecting anything more. I went to the archives to check out back issues of The Hockey News, which I expected to mean several hours in a cubical with microfiche, and so it was. I’d been sitting there maybe two hours already, snapping little films between glass plates, squinting at blurry negatives of Gordie Howe and faded quotes about stick duels in the Maritime Leagues, silently cursing the slow project of digitization, when the archivist- a very nice woman of the noticeably pregnant variety- tapped me gently on the shoulder.
“Are you a hockey fan too? Or just doing research?”
Now, anybody who is willing to spend several hours going through mid-fifties issues of The Hockey News on microfiche is either a hockey fan or clinically insane, so I felt that she should already know the answer to this question purely from the fact that I had shown up clean, coherent, and without any exotic reptiles in my bag. But I did not say this. She was a nice lady, and possibly would not appreciate sarcasm.
“Yeah, I’m a pretty big hockey fan.”
“Oh, well then, uh, the Stanley Cup is here. If you want to see it.”
“The real one?”
“Yeah. The real one. C’mon.”
Everything is diminished when sitting in a beige conference room, but the Stanley Cup is less diminished then most. Nevertheless, it’s a little bit odd to just come across the Cup sitting in some generic office, as though it was just grabbing a cup of coffee in between filing TPS reports. The Stanley Cup belongs on platforms and pedestals, it belongs under that huge skylight in that huge room at the Hall of Fame. Yet here it is, on a little table in the corner, hanging out.
And a bunch of people are hanging out with it. There’s a guy lounging on the central table, almost laying down, and another sitting next to him. There’s a woman with a mug leaning in the doorway, and a younger dude peering at something around the left side. One of the older guys, I presume, is the handler. He’s talking about airplanes.
“It’s another one of those little ones, just two seats across.”
Someone snorts derisively. “They’re all like that now.”
“Used to be those were just the commuter flights, but now they’re everywhere you go.”
“Where are you going tonight?”
“Nashville. Some Bridgestone event.”
“Bridgestone. They do a lot with it, don’t they?”
“Lately they do.”
I busy myself looking for the errors. Last time I saw the Stanley Cup, saw it properly in the Great Hall, it wasn’t the ‘real’ Cup but the replica version, the one they keep in the Hall when the real one is on tour. To know the real Cup you need to look for the mistakes: The row of Xs with which Basil Pocklington’s name was obliterated, the misspelling of Islanders in 1981. Sure enough, there they are.
“This is the real one.” I have to say it out loud.
One of the guys laughs. “Yes, it is. Want me to take your picture with it?” He mimes the universal gesture for camera, as if I might be confused as to the meaning of the idiom ‘to take a picture’.
“No, it’s okay. This is enough.”
“What about you?” He turns to the woman with the mug, who’s been chit-chatting quietly with my host about some businessy matter.
“I already have a picture with it.”
“Oh, but it’s from years ago. When your hair was long.”
She shrugs, bored. “I don’t need another one.”
“You sure? I could take one right now.” The guy whips out his iPhone.
“Not on your phone! I don’t want a picture of me with the Cup on your phone!” Apparently pictures with the Cup are the hockey-archivist version of sexting. “Anyway, I’ll just get one the next time it comes through.”
The nice pregnant archivist looks at me and giggles. “Oh yeah, the Stanley Cup is here. Ho-hum, just another day at the office.” She giggles again.
I think the archivists expect me to be giddy, but it seems almost inappropriate to be giddy here. When people line up to take a picture with the Cup at the Hall of Fame, or at some post-victory event in the triumphal city, they’ll wait an hour in line and spend that time plotting exactly what they’ll do when they get there. In those situations, surrounded by a coterie of excited fans, giddiness seems natural, because the Cup seems like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But here? In this particular beige office? The Cup is just another coworker. Maybe one with a bit more celebrity than most, but in the end, not so different from any businessman. It goes to meetings, makes appearances, flies around in little cigar-planes from one PR event to another. And in between, it hangs out in conference rooms with the croissants, looking bored.
I go back to my cubicle feeling deflated. What is the Stanley Cup, anyway? It’s just a trophy, and a trophy, as everybody knows, is nothing but a MacGuffin. It doesn’t mean anything in itself, it just exists to drive the plot forward. Like the Maltese Falcon, or the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, or Rosebud. It can only be a disappointment when the big reveal finally comes. It doesn’t mean anything in itself. It’s just a bowl. Hell, it’s not even the real bowl anyway. It’s a copy of a bowl.
Winning it doesn’t even mean all that much anymore. Sure, every fan base acts as though getting it would be the greatest thing since curved sticks, but it doesn’t garner the kind of respect and admiration it’s supposed to. The Carolina Hurricanes won a Cup, but do we collectively respect them any more than, say, the Capitals because of it? Do we have more admiration for the Lightning than the Panthers because they’ve got a Cup to their name? Not really. Nowadays, most of us recognize that the Cup is sometimes won on luck. We respect good franchises for being good franchises and a Cup victory can enhance that reputation, but winning it in itself no longer constitutes persuasive proof of greatness.
Maybe, in the end, we only want to win it so bad because the only alternative is losing.
Maybe, without the Great Hall and the gaggle of admiring fans to show it off, it’s just a boring old bowl.
These are the very depressing thoughts I am thinking to myself as I go back to my microfiche. My references begin to turn up a run of back articles about player-on-official violence an supplementary discipline, which given the current hockey climate really doesn’t help. And I can still hear, down the row of cubicles, the people in the conference room, talking about airport security and hotel reservations. I am not feeling great about hockey.
Half an hour later I sit back to rub the fuzz from my unfocussed eyes and I realize the hall has gone quiet. I get up and walk down the row and peer around the corner and, sure enough, they’ve all gone back to their work. But the Cup is still there. By itself.
I am alone with the Stanley Cup. From one of the offices down the hall comes the low murmur of someone talking on the phone, and back in the cubicles someone is shuffling papers, but other than that, everything is silent and still. There are no flashing cameras, no impatient eyes. Nobody is waiting for me to take a picture or take a turn and move on. Whatever I do in this moment, nobody will ever see, and nobody will ever know, except me and the Cup.
The first question one asks oneself when alone with the Stanley Cup is this: can I steal it? Some people have actually given in to this impulse, but it doesn’t take more than a few moments calculation to realize I shouldn’t be one of them. True, there are no guards, but I’d have to go past the receptionist downstairs and odds are she would tell on me. Also, I am not fast under the best of circumstances, and carrying a trophy that is two-thirds of my height and one-third of my weight is not the best of circumstances. That handler guy didn’t look too quick, but I bet he’d get a rush of adrenaline if his job was on the line.
Which then immediately leads to the second question: if I can’t steal it, what should I do with it? For any true hockey fan, the natural answer is “the most vulgar thing imaginable”, but every vulgar thing I can imagine would involve either removing clothes or entering into some kind of horribly compromising pose, and I know for a fact that the one guy is just itching to use his cell phone camera. The corporate overlords would not be amused. So what remains? I could lift it, of course, but even avoiding the sacred verb ‘hoist’, that would be blasphemy. I could touch it, but that would be dull, anyone can do that anywhere. I could just turn around and leave, but…
The world used to be full of magical things. It isn’t now. We explored and mapped and climbed mountains and dug holes across the entire surface of the globe looking for them, only to discover that most of them are long gone or never were. Those we did find we found were no more than ordinary things, pretty enough to look at maybe, but mostly rusty and dented and wholly lacking in magic powers. And so, finally awakened to the plain realities of plain reality, we gave up believing in magic things.
But it’s been a hard giving up, and although few of us now believe in the Holy Grail or the Lost City of Atlantis, we still constantly choose to not disbelieve in such things. Modern people fill our fictions, our novels and movies, with more super-powered magical stuff than all the ancient mythologies of the world combined. Because as much as we don’t need magic any more, we still need quests. We still need to bleed and sweat and struggle in pursuit of something. True, what we really need is not the thing itself. What we need is the bleeding and the sweating and the trying, what we need is the overcoming, but it’s hard to admit that. Blood and sweat and effort for nothing is sad, it sings to us of futility and despair, the songs of existential dread. A quest must be for a treasure or it isn’t a quest at all. With something grand at the end, it’s a journey. With nothing at the end, it’s a trudge.
So it’s important to have quests, and a quest needs to have an object, and maybe it’s all a little bit made-up but sometimes people need made-up things, and made-up isn’t always the opposite of true. The Stanley Cup may indeed be a MacGuffin, but it’s that oddest of paradoxes, a real MacGuffin, an object that inspires in human beings to great and sometimes terrible feats of strength, courage, and sacrifice. The Stanley Cup is the thing that ennobles hockey, that makes it more than just flashy style and pointless violence and spitting. When it appears at the end of the season’s story, it makes joy out of strife. What, in the boring, depressing, dull real world, is more magic than that?
So I could choose to accept the reality, which is that I’m standing in a conference room with a sports trophy which is temporarily gathering dust before getting sent out to Nashville to be used in some kind of tire-related PR stunt. If I recognize that, I should just turn around and go. Microfiche ain’t gonna read itself.
Or I could choose to believe the legend, which is that I am standing alone in the presence of one of the last mythic objects on this continent, the Cup of Stanley, a magic punchbowl that confers glory everlasting on all those who drink from it. If I believe this, then I need to do something special, because this moment will never come again.
Even in this dull beige room in this dull beige rink in this dull beige room, it shines.
That’s enough for me.