The great past and uncertain future of the J.P. Bickell Memorial Cup

Lou Lamoriello talked about the Maple Leafs signing Ron Hainsey and Dominic Moore and what that means to the team going forward.

It is one of hockey’s most mysterious trophies.

The J.P. Bickell Memorial Cup can only be won by employees of the Toronto Maple Leafs. And although some have likened it to the Maple Leafs version of the Hart Trophy, unlike the award for the NHL’s most valuable player, it is not awarded annually nor is it necessarily handed out for an MVP-calibre performance.

The Bickell – which dates back to 1953 – is awarded at the discretion of the Maple Leafs board of directors. When the Bickell was created, The Globe and Mail noted that, “there are no hard and fast rules to guide the board of directors in their voting except that only Toronto players qualify.” As a result, while there may be no official criteria governing the award, it has been generally accepted that players could earn the Bickell for a singular feat, a season of superior play, or to recognize a distinguished period of service with the club.

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Since 1953 just 19 different members of the organization have been recipients of the award. Some of whom, especially in the award’s early years, are a who’s who of franchise greats: Ted Kennedy was the inaugural winner; Dave Keon was the first Maple Leafs player to win it in consecutive years and the first to win via a unanimous vote, while Johnny Bower remains the only three-time winner.

But in recent years the Bickell has faded into obscurity (good luck finding even a photograph of it). It hasn’t been awarded since 2003 and it’s been nearly two decades since a player (Doug Gilmour in 1993) won the award.

The History

Jack (J.P.) Bickell played a significant role in the early history of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He also happened to be one of the wealthiest people in Canada during his life. In 1907, at the age of 23, Bickell started a brokerage firm in Toronto. He later struck it rich in the gold mines of Timmins, ON, where he later became president of McIntyre Porcupine Mines, once one of Canada’s most important mines.

When he wasn’t stacking gold bars, Bickell maintained a keen interest in hockey. In 1924, when the Hambly brothers sold the Toronto St. Patricks, Bickell was one of the new owners. Three years later, when Conn Smythe purchased the St. Pats and renamed them the Maple Leafs, Bickell was integral in orchestrating the transaction and ensuring a smooth ownership transition.

With Smythe now at the helm, Bickell continued to be a driving force behind the Maple Leafs, including the construction of Maple Leaf Gardens. In words attributed to Smythe, repeated in The Globe and Mail after the magnate’s death, Bickell was, “one of the corner stones of the whole thing; he was the man who put the thing over.”

Building Maple Leaf Gardens was no small feat. Construction began during the depths of the Great Depression. Nevertheless, just seven months after the first bricks were laid, Toronto’s hockey cathedral had opened, just in time for the start of the 1931-32 regular season.

For the next six years, Bickell served as president of the Gardens and remained chairman of the board for 11 years, serving as a director until his death in 1951.

To honour Bickell’s contributions, Smythe—sparing no expense—commissioned a trophy to commemorate Bickell’s legacy.

In a league with no shortage of beautiful trophies, the J.P. Bickell Memorial Cup might be its most extravagant. Made entirely of 14-karat gold, the Bickell sits atop a quartz base. After Smythe had it constructed by a Swedish firm in the early 1950s, it estimated to be worth $10,000, leading The Globe and Mail to call it, one of “the most beautiful and expensive sports trophies in the world.”

The award was handed out for four straight years beginning in 1953, but not again until 1959 when George Armstrong and Bob Pulford became the first players to share the distinction in a single year. During the 1960s, a period in which the Maple Leafs won four Stanley Cups, the Bickell was awarded nine times to six different players.

Then in 1972 Harold Ballard became the team’s majority owner.

Descent to obscurity

For the next two decades, the Bickell was moribund. And it’s not as though there weren’t any exceptional Maple Leafs throughout the 1970s. When Darryl Sittler set the NHL record with a 10-point game in 1976, he received a silver tea set for achieving the feat. He was never awarded the Bickell while a member of the Maple Leafs.

The Bickell’s disappearance under Ballard could also be attributed to his battles with other Maple Leafs board members. In the late 1960s, the board had attempted to oust Ballard, but having survived and later become principal owner, he sought to curtail the board’s influence, which could have included their awarding of the Bickell.

During the 1970s the Bickell also faced some internal competition in the form of the new Molson Cup, which was to be awarded to players from Canadian teams who earned the most three-star honours throughout the regular season.

Even after Ballard’s death in 1990, and the subsequent change in Maple Leafs’ ownership, the Bickell remained largely dormant, with a few exceptions. According to Bob Stellick, former director of business operations and communications for the Maple Leafs, the trophy became part of a new tradition the post-Ballard owners wanted to instill as part of their efforts to repair relations with alumni.

Beginning in 1990, the Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens played an annual alumni game. As part of this friendly competition, the winning team would be awarded the Bickell Cup. But, for this competition the award would be renamed and given a new look.

After being hauled out of a safe in Maple Leaf Gardens, the Bickell was refitted with a marble base and renamed the King Clancy Trophy. When the alumni game shifted to Montreal in 1991, Stellick packed up the “Clancy” and carried it with him on the train.

Former captain Darryl Sittler was never awarded the Bickell while a member of the Maple Leafs. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Unbeknownst at the time to Stellick and most of the Maple Leafs brass, was just how valuable the “Clancy” was. It was only after new owner Steve Stavro demanded it be returned to Maple Leaf Gardens and restored at a jeweler, did they learn the trophy was worth upwards of $80,000.

“I thought it was a nice trophy,” recalled Stellick. “But I had no idea it was made out of solid gold. Here I am sticking it into a gym bag and putting it on a train.”

With the Bickell now safely back at Maple Leaf Gardens, it was put on display in the building’s trophy case.

Following the team’s resurgent 1992-93 season, Doug Gilmour became the trophy’s first recipient in 14 years. The following year there was some chatter about giving the Bickell to Wendel Clark following his trade to the Quebec Nordiques, but it never came to pass.

According to former Maple Leafs general manager Gord Stellick, there was an idea to present it to Clark when he visited Toronto with his new team the following season but due to the 1994-95 lockout-shortened season, the two clubs didn’t meet and the idea was never revisited.

Since 1993 the award has been handed out just three times with Pat Quinn winning it last in 2003.

An uncertain future

With the exceptional play of the Maple Leafs rookies in 2016-17, an argument could have been made for awarding the Bickell to Auston Matthews. Mike Babcock’s performance behind the Maple Leafs bench was also worthy of consideration but it remains unclear if the Maple Leafs intend to start awarding the Bickell again.

Members of the organization’s front office declined to comment for this story.

For now, the trophy sits securely somewhere in the Air Canada Centre, but in place not accessible to the public.

Whether the next recipient turns out to be Auston Matthews, Mike Babcock or someone else, the Bickell should be rechristened as an important bridge between eras.

Awarding it again would not only pay homage to Bickell’s important contributions to the franchise, but it would also acknowledge that for the first time in a while, the Maple Leafs have a team worth celebrating.

J.P. Bickell Memorial Cup Recipients

Year Recipient
1953 Ted Kennedy
1954 Harry Lumley
1955 Ted Kennedy
1956 Tod Sloan
1959 George Armstrong and Bob Pulford
1960 Johnny Bower
1961 Red Kelly
1962 Dave Keon
1963 Dave Keon
1964 Johnny Bower
1965 Johnny Bower
1966 Allan Stanley
1967 Terry Sawchuk
1969 Tim Horton
1971 Bobby Baun
1972 King Clancy
1979 Mike Palmateer
1993 Doug Gilmour
1995 Bob Davidson
1999 Mats Sundin and Curtis Joseph
2003 Pat Quinn

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