TORONTO – One of Bryan Trottier’s more vivid childhood memories is from 1966, when he watched the great Jean Beliveau hoist the Stanley Cup, the nobility of the trophy and majesty of the moment emanating clearly through his family’s black-and-white TV.
“I wanted to be Jean Beliveau,” the Hall of Fame centre recalls. “The Cup looked so shiny and it was the perfect size and the way he pumped it over his head was so impressive. To this day, when you see guys pumping it up, it’s like, ‘This is so perfect.’”
Fourteen years after the legendary Montreal Canadiens captain made such a lasting impression on a nine-year-old kid growing up on a farm in Val Marie, Sask., Trottier won the Stanley Cup with the New York Islanders, the first of his six championships as a player before later adding another as an assistant coach.
Few others have as much, or more, experience with the storied trophy, which is why when he said the Cup’s configuration was perfect for lifting above one’s head, it carried lots of weight.
So memorable were his words that in 1992 when the trophy’s trustees, the Hockey Hall of Fame and the NHL deliberated over what do when the Cup was out of space for new champions, Trottier’s description played a role in the decision on its future.
“There was a lot of talk about retiring it, because it was 100 years old at the time, and making a new one, starting from the top and working down to the next 100 years,” says Phil Pritchard, the Hall’s curator also known as the Keeper of the Cup. “There was talk of adding more rings – adding another 3½ inches every 13 years. We’d be onto another 10 inches by now. Then someone brought up that Bryan Trottier had said it’s the perfect height to hold over your head and that kind of resonated in everyone’s mind – how do you keep that look and that shape?”
What they came up with was a process to retire the oldest of the five bands wrapped around the barrel every 13 years when the Cup is full, flattening it out before hanging it in the Hall of Fame’s display vault, and adding a new silver band for the next 13 champions. That history is especially relevant this spring with the Cup out of space for a third time, the 2017-18 winners set to bump off the ring etched with the champions from 1953-54 through 1964-65.
That band features six Canadiens teams, three Toronto Maple Leafs clubs, two editions of the Detroit Red Wings and one group of Chicago Blackhawks. Prominent names on those championship squads include Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Johnny Bower, George Armstrong, Maurice Richard and, of course, Beliveau.
Right now it looks like the band exchange will take place in the fall, meaning the team that gets the Cup this year won’t see an open spot for itself on the trophy. The removal and replacement will be done in Montreal by Louise St. Jacques, who also does the engraving.
“It’s neat because the Cup evolves and changes, but it still stays the same,” says Pritchard. “Even evolving it a whole bunch, it still has that same look. It’s second to none in sports trophies.”
Maintaining the Stanley Cup in its current form – the look it’s had since a redesign in 1957 – meant that eventually, everyone’s time on it runs out. The range runs between 52-65 years, depending on which spot on the band a team gets, and while retired bands are placed in a glass display in the vault where the original Cup donated in 1892 by Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Lord Stanley of Preston, is also housed, the limited lifespan isn’t always easy to take.
The last time a band was removed Hall of Famer Andy Bathgate, who helped the Maple Leafs to the 1963-64 championship, told The Canadian Press he wasn’t happy that his team’s time was coming.
“That’s what you work for all your life, that’s the ultimate for us, regardless of personal trophies and all that, being on the Stanley Cup is what it’s all about. It’s not the same (being in the vault),” Bathgate said in that 2007 article. “I think you earned it. It doesn’t matter how big the trophy gets. It’s a very difficult thing to accomplish.”
Trottier understands Bathgate’s sentiment but is “adamant” that as is the Stanley Cup has the perfect look.
“If you start adding rings, you add weight to it, you change the look of it, it starts getting too big and awkward,” says Trottier. “At one point it was a long tube-looking thing – that didn’t look like the Stanley Cup. When they designed this look, it was spectacular. Later on, when you see Bobby Orr with it, the multitude of guys you remember watching on TV, that’s what you want to remember. That’s the look I want to remember.”
Trottier also feels that at a minimum of 52 years, winners get a pretty substantial run on the Cup itself, with the band’s mounting in the vault providing an element of immortality.
“You’re never forgotten because you’re enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame – who can argue with that?” says Trottier. “Our name is engraved forever and that doesn’t go away because the ring is taken off. You were on a ring for 50-plus years, carried around on that Stanley Cup, and I just think it’s really cool that the Cup is not ours forever. It’s only ours for a year, and then you’ve got to try to get it for another year. That Cup is not yours to keep.”
Pritchard says other players engraved on the two bands previously removed from the Cup – one covering 1927-28 through 1939-40 and the other running from 1940-41 to 1952-53 – have expressed a sentiment similar to Bathgate’s, and he sympathizes with their feelings.
But he also notes that the Cup’s different traditions all start somewhere – for instance, in 1950 Lindsay was the first player to skate it around the ice; in the early 1970s, Johnny Bucyk was the first to do it as his teammates followed him around the rink; the on-ice team picture with the trophy started in 1988 when Wayne Gretzky insisted on the group shot; the 1995 New Jersey Devils were the first team to each spend a day with the Cup.
“This is the newest tradition, to remove a ring and add another,” says Pritchard. “The ring that is coming off now, when I was growing up those were the big names in hockey, Gordie Howe and ‘Rocket’ Richard and others. I’m sure in 13 years from now, the next group of guys that will be coming off, Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, will resonate with other hockey fans.
“You can appreciate the history of the game and you can appreciate that it’s evolving and changing.”
What remains constant is how exclusive a club Stanley Cup winners are – a total of 3,229 names have been engraved on it, and counting – how gruelling a task it is to accomplish, and the euphoria a team feels when it does happen.
“It’s so cool to touch and feel the names that are engraved, and you think they’re going to put your name on there, and when you finally lift it up it’s a little bit heavier than you thought it was, the rush of the crowd screaming as you’re pumping it up over your head, it’s all the adrenalin in your system on that,” says Trottier.
“The Islanders, boy, we took our turn, we didn’t let anybody get off the ice without pumping it over their heads. Same thing with Pittsburgh. I said, ‘Boys, everybody’s going to get that moment on the ice when they get a pump it up over their head and feel like their boyhood hero, whoever it was.’
“Mine was Jean Beliveau, that was my most vivid memory as a kid, was him pumping it. That’s the cool thing – you get to share that with your boyhood heroes. Like, awesome.”