Commentary

Keeping the Stanley Cup

Updated: August 1, 2012, 10:08 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Ithaca, N.Y. -- It all began so innocuously.

It was the 1989 NHL awards and Colin Patterson, a member of the Cup-winning Calgary Flames, was nominated for the Frank J. Selke Trophy. Patterson asked Phil Pritchard of the Hockey Hall of Fame whether it would be OK if the Stanley Cup stopped by his place in Toronto the next day.

At the time there was no precedent of players taking a turn with the Stanley Cup. The Cup was essentially the property of the Cup-winning team during the offseason and since the Cup was en route back to Calgary at some point, Pritchard -- who would go on to become the curator of the Hall of Fame and in many ways the face of those who keep the Cup through television commercials and ads -- thought what the heck.

So the next morning, Pritchard wedged the Cup and its wheeled case in the back of his Toyota Celica and delivered them to Paterson's home. By the time he arrived the street was full of banners and cars awaiting the trophy's arrival.

"It was unbelievable," said Pritchard, who actually began working for the Hall of Fame the summer of 1988 and had his first Cup experience taking it to a Newmarket Minor Hockey Association function north of Toronto.

Although the Cup would be well-used at Patterson's morning celebration, his was the only individual visit that summer.

"No one else got it," Pritchard said still smiling at the idea.

The next summer the Cup was still on its regular pattern of being used only for team events when Pritchard got a call from John Muckler's family.

Muckler's Edmonton Oilers had won their fifth Stanley Cup that spring, defying skeptics who didn't think they could win without Wayne Gretzky, and Muckler's family wondered about a special surprise for the long-time coach.

Unbeknownst to Muckler, Pritchard delivered the Cup to Rhode Island and, along with family members, waited to surprise Muckler and his wife.

[+] EnlargeStanley Cup
Ezra O. Shaw /Allsport Phil Pritchard was with the Cup when it made its historic first pilgrimage to Russia and Red Square with Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov and the rest of the Russian Red Wings back in 1997.

"We hid in the bushes with the Cup," Pritchard recalled.

Luckily the shock of seeing the Cup appear from behind some shrubbery did not cause Muckler any ill-effects and the trophy ended up enjoying a nice boat cruise.

In 1994, it was still the practice for the Hall of Fame to release the Cup into the care of the team. Pritchard remembers loading the Cup and its case into the back of New York Rangers defenseman Jeff Beukebooms' pick-up truck as he drove off to a team event.

See ya later.

After years of stories of Cup misadventures ranging from trips to strip clubs and to the bottoms of pools, the Hockey Hall of Fame and the NHL decided a little structure was needed. It was also decided that the Cup's summer schedule should be formalized to give players and team personnel a chance to celebrate individually with the trophy.

In the summer of 1995, the New Jersey Devils became the first team to schedule individual visits with the Cup for all their players and hockey staff. Ever since, the Hall of Fame staff has worked in conjunction with the winning teams and NHL officials in the complicated task of making sure everyone -- from scouts and trainers to front-line players, coaches and managers -- gets a turn to host the Cup during the offseason.

The process brings to mind the planning and execution of a military exercise that often involves trips around the globe.

In general, the team has 100 days with which to disperse the significant joy that the Cup represents. This summer some 75 Los Angeles Kings team members and staff will get a share of the Cup.

Walt Neubrand, a sixth-grade teacher in Mississauga, has been lugging the Cup around during the summer since 1997.

His first trip was to Scotty Bowman's house in Buffalo after the Wings' first Cup win in 42 years. He drove the speed limit all the way on the fast-moving QEW freeway for fear of wiping out and wrecking the trophy on his first assignment.

Bowman was done with his celebrating early in the evening.

"OK, I thought, this is great. Little did I know," Neubrand noted.

Not all -- OK, not many -- of Neubrand's nights with the Cup have been so genteel, although a couple of years back the Hall of Fame instituted a midnight curfew for the Cup, not because it needs its beauty rest but because the keepers of the Cup do. And, well, everyone knows that the potential for chaos simply ratchets up past midnight, especially with the Cup in the vicinity.

When the Wings won their most recent Cup in 2008, it was Neubrand who returned to set the trophy in exactly the same spot in Bowman's backyard as he did the first two times he spent the day with the game's greatest coach.

Neubrand, who worked at the Hall of Fame before beginning his tour of duty as a keeper of the Cup, recalls looking at the summer schedule and shaking his head. "I said, this is insane. How is one guy going to do all that?"

Neubrand found out pretty quickly how it gets done: a lot of coffee, little sleep and a profound love for the game and what the trophy represents.

Early on, the job of ferrying the Cup hither and yon for more than three months was essentially a two-person job. Now that staff has grown to four, but it doesn't get any easier as each summer is filled with a complicated system of flights, car rentals and border crossings to ensure that every person on the Stanley Cup-winning team gets a turn with the Cup.

On this trip, for instance, long-time keeper Mike Bolt has flown the Cup from appearances in California to New York in time for Jonathan Quick's turn with the Cup in Stamford, Conn. Storms delayed Bolt's flight and thus his rendezvous with Neubrand and Pritchard in New York.

Neubrand and Pritchard left the Toronto area at about 8 a.m. on Thursday. In the back of their rental van was the Clarence Campbell Bowl awarded to the Western Conference champions and the Conn Smythe Trophy, which Quick won as playoff MVP, all of which meant a prolonged stop at U.S. Customs explaining their business in the U.S. Apparently their customs agent was more into fishing than hockey.

The Cup was finally collected and the two arrived in Stamford about 10 p.m., while Bolt is stranded on Long Island unable to get back home to Toronto.

The next day, Quick does not take the Cup out in public, choosing instead to stay at his home in nearby Greenwich, until an evening dinner party. That party ends shortly after midnight and is followed by a five-hour trip from Connecticut to Ithaca, N.Y., with the two taking turns driving through the dark, hilly roads. Luckily they didn't encounter any deer along the way and the Cup, complete with its gleaming shine, is ready to roll for Kings captain Dustin Brown's big day shortly before 8 a.m.

Neubrand carries with him a scrapbook of his adventures with the Cup. It features the Cup's trip into the Hollywood Hills to the famous Hollywood sign with Luc Robitaille, now the Kings' president of business operations who won his only Cup as a player with the Detroit Red Wing in 2002.

When Chicago won the Cup in 2010, Neubrand accompanied the Cup to France and the Eiffel Tour with netminder Cristobal Huet.

"When am I ever [going to] get to go to the Eifel Tour?" he asks with a shrug reinforcing that, yes, this might be among the coolest jobs in the land.

And while it's true there is something to be said for hanging out with the most recognizable of all sports' trophies, these men are not just glorified security guards but rather have to marry the iron fist and the velvet glove. They must be unfailingly gracious with the literally tens of thousands of people with whom they will come in contact with in a summer but relentlessly protective of the Cup's physical well-being and its tradition and mystique.

[+] EnlargeMike Bolt
Thomas Nycz/Getty ImagesMike Bolt recently flew the Stanley Cup from California to New York for public appearances.

That's why, for instance, you'll never see pictures of the Cup in a strip club.

Needless to say, this element of the job is sacrosanct to all who are entrusted with the Cup's care.

Both Pritchard and Neubrand groan when asked about last summer's well-publicized mishap in St. John's Newfoundland with Boston's Michael Ryder.

The Cup took a tumble in broad daylight when someone connected to a hastily organized public appearance with local politicians forgot to adequately secure the legs on a folding table. When Ryder set the Cup down, the table collapsed and down went the Cup.

Although some quick repair work that involved Pritchard's white gloves and a police officer's portable took kit left the Cup as good as new, even now Pritchard and Neubrand, on duty that day, grimace at the thought.

So, yes, keeping over-exuberant people (and themselves) from damaging the Cup is part of the job. Only close family and friends are allowed to pick up the Cup and even then that activity is kept to a minimum.

"It's really such a special privilege to lift it," Neubrand explained.

But the role is more complex, nuanced if you will, than simply keeping drunken people and small children from making a mess with the Cup.

At public events the Cup's handlers often make suggestions on how to ensure that the maximum number of people has contact with the Cup and that not too many people go home angry or disappointed.

It's often a fine line, given the hundreds that will show up to see the Cup.

"We give them little bits of advice for their consideration and suggestions throughout the day," Neubrand said.

"Some of these guys are so nice they just don't want to say no."

So saying "no" is often left to the Cup's attendants.

There are other things to consider, including food.

"I always say a well-fed Cup guy is a happy Cup guy," Neubrand noted before devouring what was left of a bag of sour-cream-and-dill-pickle chips that survived the trip from Stamford.

For all the travel nightmares, the late nights and early mornings, there is something reaffirming about the job, the delivery of memories that will last a lifetime, from Siberia to Southern California.

Pritchard was with the Cup when it made its historic first pilgrimage to Russia and Red Square with Igor Larionov, Slava Fetisov and the rest of the Russian Red Wings back in 1997. This summer it returned with Kings players Slava Voynov and Andrei Loktionov before heading to Slovenia with Anze Kopitar.

Neubrand's favorite moment actually came when he took the Cup to arctic Canada for a tournament in Nunavut. The only access to the community was via snowmobile or by airplane. Some people drove their snow machines 250 miles to see the Cup in weather that dipped to minus-65.

"It was just a great experience," Neubrand said.

"I had caribou. It was awesome."

But, really, when is there not a good time to be had with this trophy?

"It's the Cup, right?" said Neubrand, a father of two who actually met his future wife during a visit with the Cup in Tampa Bay.

The men who accompany the Cup on its annual journey spend lots of time watching people file past the trophy, as was the case in Ithaca as Brown and his wife Nicole raised money for a local veterans' charity. But there are also the moments of great emotion, visits to graveyards to honor parents or grandparents, siblings or cousins who would have taken great joy in the Cup's visit.

Bret Hedican broke down at his St. Paul, Minn., high school when they retired his jersey on the day he brought the Cup home.

Patrick Kane's visit with the Cup two summers ago included a visit to a cancer patient who had one of his life's wishes fulfilled by the trophy's visit.

Matt Cullen, who won the Cup in 2006 with Carolina kept the Cup in his bedroom overnight until its early-morning departure and then he refused to vacuum the ring in the carpet the trophy had left, trying to hold on to every last essence of the visit for as long as possible.

Neubrand said he has seen players tear up when the Cup arrives, and there is always a moment of sadness when the Cup moves on.

"I've had guys tell me it ranks right up there with the birth of a child or a wedding day for them," Neubrand said.