Take a close enough look at the Stanley Cup and you’ll notice there’s something wrong with it – and I don’t mean the listing of the 1981 champion “New York Ilanders.” There should be an entry with a team name and player names between the 2003-04 Tampa Bay Lightning and 2005-06 Carolina Hurricanes, but the Cup wasn’t awarded to anybody during the last NHL lockout. Instead, the most coveted trophy in all of sports bears a simple inscription: “2004-05 SEASON NOT PLAYED.”
Since before pro hockey even existed, the Stanley Cup has been awarded in every conceivable adverse circumstance. During wartime, during the dissolution of professional leagues, even during dominance by pro teams from the American South, the Cup has had a winner every year of its existence – except 2004-05. That “SEASON NOT PLAYED” inscription is a black mark on the history of the National Hockey League, which first won control of the Cup in 1947 in a deal with the Cup’s trustees but doesn’t actually own it. The thought of that inscription becoming part of a matching pair, all because Gary Bettman and the NHL’s richest owners can’t make a deal with the players who make their league possible, should be repulsive to anyone who loves hockey.
As it turns out, that might be avoidable. Browsing all the latest bits of information from hockey journalists on Twitter this morning, I noticed this tweet from Roy MacGregor of The Globe and Mail:
According to MacGregor’s story, three hockey-playing lawyers – Tim Gilbert, Gard Shelley, and David Burt – took the NHL and the trustees of the Stanley Cup to court during the last lockout in 2004-05. After three years in court, Gary Bettman and the Cup’s two trustees signed a memorandum of understanding that acknowledged the right of those trustees to award the Cup to a team from outside the NHL if the NHL “fails to organize a competition to determine a Stanley Cup winner.”
Bettman is doing his absolute best to fail at organizing a competition. And now the same three lawyers who won that acknowledgement from him have teamed up with a wealthy backer (and former pro hockey player) to make sure they’re ready to hand out the Cup should the NHL not be ready for primetime. The format of the proposed Spirit Challenge Cup hasn’t yet been determined – they’re soliciting ideas for that – but it would be held in the spring of 2013 and aired on the Fight Network in Canada. Some of the ideas have included a tournament for under-14 players, a women’s hockey tournament, and a tournament for First Nations kids.
The NHL has become synonymous with the Stanley Cup over the years. That association is a privilege, not a right. If the League won’t get its act together, I hope the Spirit Challenge Cup succeeds – whatever its eventual format might be. The Stanley Cup was made to be awarded to winners, not to be scarred with tributes to the failures of American lawyers.