Frozen Grounds: The Greatest Trophy in All of Team Sports

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 11: Children touch the Stanley Cup trophy as it sits on display in Times Square on April 11, 2012 in New York City. To kick off the start of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, a 21 foot, 6,600 pound replica of the Stanley Cup trophy was unveiled in Times Square. The replica trophy doubles as a water fountain that New York residents and visitors can drink from. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

It isn't just a conceit of NHL fans. The Stanley Cup really is the greatest trophy in all of team sports. And here's why.

The Stanley Cup is perhaps the hardest trophy to attain in all of team sports. In the NHL, you have the regular season, and then there's the Second Season - the playoffs. It's a two-month grueling slog from mid-April until mid-June for which players receive a fraction of their regular season salary and play through injuries that would keep the most sensible person bed-ridden for weeks.

And it's all for the shiny silver trophy known as the Stanley Cup.

The current Stanley Cup, surprisingly, is actually a replica. The original cup that's attached to the top of the pedestal filled with the engraved silver bands of names of players and team personnel was officially retired in 1970. It now resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Ontario.

The original Stanley Cup itself has been around since 1892. It was bought by the then Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley of Preston, who was the viceregal representative for the monarchy. It was intended to be the trophy for the best hockey team in all of Canada, and was first awarded to the Montreal Hockey Club of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association as a championship trophy in 1893.

The Stanley Cup was passed around as the championship trophy for the Canadian hockey leagues until 1914. At that point, the National Hockey Association (NHA) champion - later to become the National Hockey League (NHL) - starting playing the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) for the Cup. Previously, the Stanley Cup had been reserved for the best Canadian-based hockey team. With this interleague championship, it eventually became an international trophy.

The first American-based team to play for the Stanley Cup was the Portland (Ore.) Rosebuds of the PCHA in 1916, but they lost to the Montreal Canadiens.

The first American-based team to ever win the Stanley Cup was the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917. The Seattle Metropolitans went on to play for the Stanley Cup again in 1919 versus the Montreal Canadiens, but there was no Stanley Cup Champion that year for the first time since 1893 due to a Spanish influenza epidemic. The Metropolitans would play for the Cup one more time before the PCHA was to fold, and losing to the Ottawa Senators in 1920.

The National Hockey Association became the National Hockey League in 1918. And by 1926, the PCHA and the subsequent Western Hockey League had folded, so the Stanley Cup became the exclusively the property of the NHL. From 1926 until the present, the Stanley Cup has only ever not been awarded to the NHL champion, and that was in 2005 due to a labor dispute between the NHL Players Association and the NHL.

The tradition of engraving silver bands around the base of the pedestal has been around almost from the start. Early on, the pedestal was added on and bands added instead of replacing the silver bands when they were all marked up. Originally, it was just the year and the team name. Eventually, and after various configurations, the bands once full are removed and kept at the Hockey Hall of Fame for viewing.

The tradition of including player and personnel names on the trophy started in 1907. It became a regular occurrence by 1918, and has been the case ever since. Names have been misspelled and crossed out over the years, adding to the lore of the trophy.

Another tradition associated with the Stanley Cup is that the first person to receive it is the captain of the winning team, who then takes a lap around the ice with the trophy. This has been considered a tradition since the 1950s, but other captains of winning teams did do that previously. Occasionally, this tradition has been by-passed at the captain's discretion, such as when Detroit Red Wings' captain Steve Yzerman, upon receiving the Cup, directly handed it off to Vladimir Konstantinov in 1998. Konstantinov was confined to a wheel chair from injuries in a car accident the season before.

Perhaps the greatest tradition of all is the fact that everyone on the winning team is allowed a 24 hours with the Stanley Cup during the offseason. It's delivered to them wherever they want it to be, and left with them to whatever they want. Often, it's found in hometown parades of the Cup-winning players, in villages and cities around the world. But, it has also been used to baptize babies, found at the bottom of swimming pools, and been dropped off by helicopter on mountain tops, among other things.

The best part of the Stanley Cup - for the players, at least - is that the names of their childhood heroes, their father's childhood heroes, and their grandfather's childhood heroes are engraved alongside their own. The thrill of the Cup isn't being the best team in the NHL. No one thinks of that, in fact. It's about getting their name etched into one of those silver rings, and having their name live in with the greatest of the great to have ever played in the NHL.

And that's really the reason why these guys will play with broken bones, separated joints, concussions, and other debilitating injuries for very little money per playoff game. It's the joy and the thrill of knowing that they've joined their heroes in that humbling glory. And having that engraved silver ring on a wooden pedestal beneath the Stanley Cup in the Hockey Hall of Fame to prove it.

Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final is tonight. It's the #8 seed in the Western Conference Los Angeles Kings at the #6 seed in the Eastern Conference New Jersey Devils. Game time is 5 pm Pacific / 8 pm Eastern on NBC.

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