How the Stanley Cup trophy joined the circus during the 1987 final

The Great One, Wayne Gretzky tells the story of how he came by his trademark number 99 by pure luck.

“I think Sparky had something to do with it.”

It’s been 33 years. Mike Keenan doesn’t just “think” that Lyle “Sparky” Kulchisky had something to do with the disappearing Stanley Cup prior to Game 7 of the 1987 Stanley Cup Final between the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers.

No. Keenan knows the Oilers equipment manager had something to do with it.

“Lemme back it up,” said Wayne Gretzky, always happy to relay an old tale from the days when things weren’t so rigid — when teams played games outside the real games, if you know what we mean.

“We found out that the Flyers had brought the Cup into their dressing room before Game 5,” began Gretzky, who also knew that Keenan — the Flyers head coach — had done the same thing before Game 6. “Before Game 7, they were looking for the Stanley Cup, and (head coach) Glen (Sather) had hidden it. He told everyone that the circus must have gotten the boxes mixed up. That it must have left with the circus.

“So before Game 7, everyone is looking for the Stanley Cup. If you can believe it, right before a Game 7, they can’t find the Stanley Cup. The Flyers didn’t get the Cup in their room, and the rest is history.”


Wait a minute. Let’s back this up a bit more.

Back in 1987, the Stanley Cup simply travelled from city to city with one of the competing teams. There was no Phil Pritchard, the Hockey Hall of Fame employee known today as the Keeper of the Cup.

“Yeah, it wasn’t like that (back then),” said Kulchisky. Actually, “We’re the reason Phil has a job.”

Before Game 5, when the series shifted north for what many thought would be its final game, with the mighty Oilers holding a 3–1 lead, Edmonton was ready for a party. Not only had the Stanley Cup arrived from Toronto, but the Edmonton Journal had an article on the proposed parade route. Meanwhile, somebody was selling Oilers “’87 Stanley Cup Champions” T-shirts outside the rink.

“We took exception to that article on the parade route for sure,” said Keenan, who taped the article up in the Flyers dressing room (another lost art in today’s game). “They were selling T-shirts already, and one of our trainers went and bought one. Just to put it up in the room. It made our guys livid. They were extremely motivated to begin with, but this just threw a little fuel on the fire.”

PROGRAMMING NOTE: Watch Game 6 of the 1987 Stanley Cup final between the Oilers and Flyers Thursday, May 7, at 9:00 ET on Sportsnet and Sportsnet NOW.

Keenan also noticed the Stanley Cup was on hand at Northlands Coliseum. He was almost all out of emotional ammunition, and saw an opportunity in the big silver mug.

“It was in storage near our locker room,” said Keenan. “I asked one of our trainers to get a key to the door and get ahold of it. Nobody on our team had ever won the Cup. Usually you’ve got one or two guys who have won a Cup somewhere.

“I brought it in (to the dressing room). I sat it on the table. It was all shined up, and their eyes were bugged when they came in off the bus. I said, ‘You can’t touch this thing until we win it.’ They were a little bit surprised, but it was enlightening. They were hungry enough anyhow, but it was something to give them the idea, visualize the idea of winning the Cup.”

The Flyers pulled off the Game 5 upset, hauling the series — and the Cup — back to Philly.

“Game 6 they did the same thing,” said Kulchisky. “Put it on the table in the dressing room. ‘This is what we’re playing for…’”

The Flyers won Game 6.

“Coming back to Edmonton,” Sparky said, “I knew it was going to happen again.”

The Cup flew home with the Oilers from Philly, and got unloaded into their dressing room with all the other traveling gear.

“It was in our foyer — no sign on it that said ‘Stanley Cup’ or anything. Just in a travel case,” Kulchisky said.

Kulchisky, who had secretly been delivering decaffeinated coffee grounds to the Flyers dressing room the entire series, knew the foyer wasn’t a good place for the Cup — especially one the opponent had gone 2–0 with when using it as a pregame motivational tool.

“We had a little equipment room halfway around the building. We called it The Hole. I just put it there, and when they came asking for it I said, ‘I don’t where it is.’”

Game 7 had been delayed a day because the circus had booked the Coliseum.

“I said, ‘The circus was in town. The Cup was out here. The circus left for Red Deer. Maybe they got it by mistake and it’s in Red Deer with the circus?’ Well, all hell broke loose. Security comes down, they had me up against the wall, and I’m tellin’ them, ‘I don’t know where it is!’

“Then Slats (Glen Sather) come down, takes me into his office, and he says, ‘Spark, I know what’s goin’ on.’

“He says, ‘I might have to fire you, but it’ll only be for a few hours.’”

Finally, right before warm-ups, the Cup showed up. It was a springtime miracle.

“They just delivered it. The circus had it,” Kulchisky said to NHL security.

It was too late for Keenan’s motivational ploy, the Flyers lost Game 7, and the Stanley Cup has not been in a Philadelphia dressing room since.

Today, the Keeper of the Cup makes sure nobody gets their hands on it until the Stanley Cup Final is over.

But in the ’80s?

“Yeah,” said Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, “the Keeper of the Cup was the Oilers, for the most part.”

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