To land his job, Phil Pritchard was at the wrong place at the wrong time. At least, that’s what his wife says.
Pritchard would disagree. Born and raised playing street hockey in Southern Ontario, he doesn’t plan on leaving his post until the Toronto Maple Leafs win his travel buddy.
A raised hand helped him land a hockey fan’s second-best dream job. He’s never been an NHL player, but as one of four keepers of the Stanley Cup, he still gets to hoist sports’ best-looking trophy most days of the year.
Save the Canadiens’ victory in L.A. in 1993 (he was on Montreal duty), Pritchard and his gleaming white gloves have been part of every Cup presentation in the last 22 years.
The Cup racks up 300,000 to 400,000 travel kilometres per year. For a considerable chunk of it, and to his better half’s chagrin, Pritchard — formally the vice president, curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame — is along for the ride.
The man has a few stories.
What separates the Stanley Cup from all other trophies?
A couple of words. One is tradition. The Cup has more tradition than any other trophy out there. Dating back to 1892 when Lord Stanley first presented it to the Dominion of Canada as a trophy to be played for, the tradition has built and built. And I think the aura of the game and what the trophy means has built and built, and it’s now 120 years old. There’s no other sport that has a trophy that is that old, that continuous.
The other word would be respect. Everyone who has picked up a stick or put on blades wants to play in the National Hockey League and hoist that Cup over their head. They understand what it means; they understand the tradition of it. And the opportunity when they get it, when they win, their reaction sums it all up.
What’s the best reaction you’ve witnessed from a winner?
What’s amazing is that (fellow keeper) Craig Campbell and I, when we walk it out onto the red carpet and hand it to Mr. Bettman, and he hands it over to the captain, the reactions are all the same. There’s the sigh of relief that they’ve actually accomplished this mountain that they’re trying to climb. They’ve fulfilled a lifelong dream. But at the same time they’ve just gone through an entire 80-plus-games season and then won 16 more games in the playoffs. So there’s pure exhaustion, joy… every emotion possible in there. And they get it all on the ice in front of 20,000 people. It’s got to be amazing.
The next time they get to do that is in their hometown. They bring it back home and they lift it up in front of their parents and friends and teachers and coaches. And I think that — and I’m sure the players would agree — is a totally different experience. They’re bringing it back to say thank you. The emotions they go through are powerful.
Twenty-two finals: Which one sticks out most?
New York in ’94 when the Rangers won. And if you haven’t been to Madison Square Garden, it’s on the fourth or fifth floor. When they won, and (Mark) Messier’s jumping up and down, and the fans are going nuts, I’m thinking, The floor is going to give. We’re going to go down three levels or something. It was unbelievable.
When Colorado won the first time in overtime in Florida (in 1996) was amazing too. All the rats were thrown on the ice. It was interesting to see a newer-market team get to see the appreciation of a Stanley Cup celebration. Even though it wasn’t their team (that won), they were part of history.
Do you still get butterflies as the clock starts ticking down and you know it’s the end?
Every time. Everyone who works for the league, for the teams, they have the butterflies too. I know from talking to fans when it’s Game 5 or 6 and the Cup’s in the building, they’re going to see a Stanley Cup championship. Whether they’re voting for the team or not, they’re going to win either way. Not many people can say that. The atmosphere in that building affects everybody. And walking out on that red carpet with television wires everywhere, our goal is (to reach) the table, but in between is organized chaos. The emotions, the excitement, the noise — it’s amazing every time.
Describe those false-alarm nights, when it’s Game 5 or 6 and the Cup is in the building but the leading team doesn’t finish the job.
It is what sport is. You never know what’s going to happen. There’s a superstitious part to it: everyone knows the Cup’s in the building, but they don’t see it. All of a sudden it’s not won, and Craig and I are two of the first three out of there — before the traffic starts, before the crowds file out.
Where do you hang out with the Cup during the game?
In most cases, around the Zamboni entrance, near the officials’ office. So if a player happens to walk out, we can duck into the officials’ locker room. And there’s usually an exit there. What’s most exciting is a deciding game that goes to overtime: we’re either walking onto the ice or we’re walking out of the building. There’s a van waiting right there. We usually have a police escort to get us out of there, and it’s all because people understand that it’s not supposed to be in the building. Tonight wasn’t the night. It’s neat to play that little part in one of the greatest moments in sport.
So you probably dreamt of being on the receiving end of the Cup at one point.
I think everyone has. We played road hockey, and we had our own Stanley Cup finals. We pretended to be our favourite players and favourite teams.
How does one get the job of keeper of the Cup?
I went to school in Oshawa, Durham College, sports administration program, and my internship was with the Ontario Hockey League. And from there I went to the Canadian Hockey League. I moved up the ladder in a way, working with Dave Branch (president) of the CHL and OHL, and he’s on our board. Things kind of worked out. And in 1988 I started here (at the Hockey Hall of Fame), and on my first week on the job, we got to take the Stanley Cup up to an event in Newmarket (Ont.). It was awesome.
One week on the job and I’m taking the Stanley Cup. I just kept putting my hand up, and now I’m one of the keepers of the Cup. There’s four guys. We get about 800 requests (for a Cup appearance) a year. It’s on the road 300 days of the year, but 100 of that it’s with the winning team. The other 200 it’s doing all-star games or charity events or tournaments or fundraisers. It’s promoting the game of hockey around the world.
How many of those days are you with it?
Last year I was on the road with it for 175 days. I only know this because my wife tells me. Obviously you bring the Cup to some events where it’s on display for a while and we’re there for a day afterward. When you go to events, people love the idea that the Stanley Cup is there, that this is it. The confusion of it is, people think, “How can it be here today and in New York or L.A. the next day? There must be two or three of them.” That’s it. That’s the one that (Zdeno) Chara won, that Patrick Kane scored to win, that Bobby Orr won.
Has it ever gotten lost or damaged?
Anyone who’s travelled in the airline knows unfortunate things happen. You miss a connection or something. When we miss a connection, the Cup misses an event. But you figure it out and it becomes part of the day. And I think when you and I are 120-years old, we’ll have a few nicks and bruises too. We might stumble a bit. At 36 inches high and 35 pounds, it’s the most beautiful trophy there is. But if it could talk, it would be a best-seller.
Have you ever had a moment of panic concerning the safety of the Cup?
I’d go back to the respect. I don’t think anyone’s ever had it in their mind that they want to damage the Cup. It means too much to too many people. Hockey worldwide is probably the most-played sport next to European football, so the respect is there. On the nervousness side, we count a lot of the players to monitor itself. So as far as nerves, it’s probably lower than you would expect, but obviously there are some.
What’s the strangest request you’ve had from a fan?
Older people become kids when they see the Cup. Once outside of Las Vegas, we were in Lake Tahoe, and a lady came up to me and asked if I had a coffee cup. I said no, but they might have some in the pro shop — we were at a golf course with Patrick Roy. She said, “But you have a coffee urn right here. How come you don’t have coffee cups?” She didn’t know what it was. She was a native of Lake Tahoe, Merino area. I explained to her what it was, and she apologized. Then she sat there with me for half an hour, and I gave her the whole history of it. She was enthralled with it, and thought it was one of the most incredible things she’d ever seen, but walking over, she thought she was going to get a free cup of coffee.
Explain the winning team’s time with it.
The team gets it for 100 days, and in those 100 days they have to do the parade, the team photo, the sponsorship obligations, the ownership’s time with it, and then the players all get it. Usually the captain and the assistant get a day and a half or two days out of it. And then everyone else gets a day. So we geographically figure out the whole summer schedule and work from there. We start early in the morning with it and stay with it till late at night, then start again the next day.
So when it’s their time with the Cup, you’re part of the package?
Yes. They incorporate the Cup — and a Cup keeper — into their life for a day.
You must have some great stories. I’ve heard of dogs eating out of the Cup or babies being baptized in it…
When you say that now, it sounds funny. But, for example, when J.S. Giguere won it with Anaheim, he had his dog eat out of it. Giguere’s dog is one of his best friends, and he told us that every morning when he trains, the dog runs with him on the beach, so that was an important part of his day in preparing for the night’s game. So his dog was very much important to what he accomplished. And babies who got baptized, they’re obviously part of the family. Kris Draper had his done. It’s very important to them, even though it sounds funny on the outside.
Do you ever get emotional in these situations?
One of the most emotional moments for them is seeing someone they haven’t seen in a while, like a kid they used to play minor hockey with, and they’re going back to thank them for being part of it. Or they’re taking it to a cemetery to visit a passed one. It’s pretty powerful, and everyone’s quiet at the moment, but it’s important to the guy because that lost one was important in his upbringing.
How many countries have you visited?
I think I’m at 17. It’s amazing that if you look at NHL rosters and where guys are from — Russia, Siberia, Czech, Slovak, (Anze) Kopitar’s from Slovenia — they have hockey everywhere.
Cristobal Huet was the first Frenchman to win it and take it back to France. It was an amazing moment for him. He was so proud to bring it back to his country.
Would you ever give up this job? Does the Cup ever become boring?
No. I probably use the word amazing a lot in this conversation, but it is truly amazing to be part of it. People say you have to pinch yourself when you love something so much. I work for the greatest sport in the world. How can you not love that?
Have you ever stolen a drink from the Cup?
I have. In 1997. I always swore I’d never do this. I believe you got to earn the right to drink from the Cup. I’m not the biggest fan when players let their friends drink out of it. I understand it, but I wouldn’t do that. But in ’97, I went with the Cup to Russia for the first time, and it was a historical moment because the big, bad Russians who the U.S. didn’t like in hockey and in life now play in the greatest league and have won the greatest trophy, and they’re taking it back to their families and friends.
I was with Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov, and they were drinking out of it for the first time on Russian soil. You talk about emotion — this was huge. Incredible. Igor said, “You got to have a drink.” I said, “No, I don’t want to.” He said, “This is so historical, Phil. You’re part of it.” So… you have to. He said, “You were instrumental in getting it here. Have a drink. We want you to.” I said, “Igor, I didn’t…” Finally, he said, “Look, if you don’t drink from it, you’re not going home. We’ll hide you here.” He was joking but he was very passionate, so I had a sip.
Russian vodka, yeah.
Which player threw the wildest party?
Teemu Selanne’s was probably the latest and wildest. When Anaheim won the Cup, they had two Europeans on the team: Selanne in Finland and (Ilya) Bryzgalov was in Samara, Russia. To get to Samara from Helsinki, it wasn’t a daily flight. So Teemu’s time with the Cup — he was an important guy with the Ducks, a senior and an assistant — he got to spend two days with it. It was a long two days but an amazing two days. Everybody in Finland knows him, and he’s such a good guy and has time for everybody, from kids to adults to sick kids, everybody. In Finland in the summer, it doesn’t get dark, so you don’t know what time it is. Hey, what time is it? 3 a.m. and we’re still going. We just kept going for two days; it was incredible. I’m sure if you talk to Teemu, he’d say it was one of the highlights of his life.
Have you ever had to say no to an offside Cup activity?
We go back to the respect thing. The guys certainly understand it. Their buddies can get carried away because the player has so much going on in his day. The buddies are sitting there waiting to party with the guy and get a head start on him, so they get a bit out of hand. But once you talk to them, they understand. The Cup is held pretty high on a pedestal, and nobody wants to ruin the day.
And it’s been to visit troops as well.
It’s been to Afghanistan. (Keeper) Mike Bolt went over with it. We’ve been to a lot of military bases throughout Canada and the U.S. to say thank you before they go over or after they come back. And as Mike says, it was an amazing experience to go over there, but let’s get them back here.
Longest lineup you’ve seen?
I can think of two: 1994 finals in Vancouver, it was on display at a hotel lobby. It was a 24-hour display and there was a lineup the entire time; never stopped. There was a two-and-a-half-hour wait. And Detroit in ’97, when they were on their way to winning their first Cup in years, we had a display downtown right by The Joe, and it was the same thing. The passion people had. I think the greatest part about it is, people are standing in line for two-and-a-half-hours and nobody’s sad. They’re thrilled, happy, passionate, and they get to the front and get their photos, it’s awesome. That’s a long time to stand.
Did you ever see the 1998 film Safe Men?
No. I haven’t heard of it.
In the movie, a couple of guys try to steal the Stanley Cup for a Jewish mobster, who wants to give it to his son for a bar mitzvah gift. Could such a heist be pulled off?
I think there’s too many hockey fans out there. If someone did steal it, with Twitter and everything, some hockey fan would see it and let it be known. First they’d think, “It can’t be the real one. The real one’s for the NHL.” No, I don’t think it’s feasibly possible, and I don’t know why someone would. It’s the greatest trophy in sport. Let’s keep it that way; let’s keep it on the pedestal and admire the accomplishments of players.