The Stanley Cup's trustees are failing hockey fans everywhere

For the second time in just nine seasons, labour unrest between the National Hockey League and the Players' Association is putting a competition for the Stanley Cup at risk. Unfortunately, that fact doesn't seem to be bothering the Cup's trustees nearly enough.

Despite what the National Hockey League and some of its fans may seem to believe, the NHL is not the owner and sole purveyor of the Stanley Cup. Frederick Stanley established the Cup when he was the sixth Governor General of Canada, and entrusted it to two trustees for the benefit of amateur hockey in Canada. Unfortunately, as the League becomes increasingly incapable of maintaining labour peace, the Cup's legacy and history is being seen as collateral damage.

Since the Cup was first awarded, hockey became more well-organized and the NHL became its premier league, and in 1926 the Stanley Cup became that league's major trophy (an agreement that was officiated in 1947). In that time, both the Cup and the League have benefited from the partnership: The Cup would not be nearly as reputable if it were still challenged for by amateur teams, while the NHL would not have the history and awesome trophy it has today if not for the Cup.

But as the NHL has become increasingly corporate, the Cup has been held hostage by the League--and regrettably, the League has had the complete support of the Cup's trustees in this campaign.

This support is entirely evident given the recent comments of the Cup's two trustees, Dan O’Neill and Ian "Scotty" Morrison, as quoted on ESPN:

O'Neill: "There's an agreement that says it's not impossible for the trustees, in the event there's no [NHL] competition, there's a possibility they could make an adjustment so that there is one. But that's not going to happen. No matter what, it's not going to happen that the competition is for anyone else other than the National Hockey League."

Morrison: "There is only a set of teams that will challenge for the Stanley Cup, and that will be the players of the National Hockey League. It's definitely at the discretion of the trustees, [... we] are adamant. We have that much respect for the NHL players. There's only one group of players that's ever going to play for the Stanley Cup and that's the NHL players."

So despite the agreement made between the NHL and a group of concerned hockey fans that the trustees had discretion to award the Stanley Cup outside the NHL were that League not to compete for it one season, the League need not be concerned: The Cup's trustees are in the NHL's pocket.

The trustees claim to have too much "respect for the NHL players" who've vied and will vie (eventually) for the Stanley Cup to award it elsewhere, but it sounds to me like they have too much respect for the NHL to run the risk of aggravating them by having another league's champion on the trophy (despite the fact that there are already numerous champions from other leagues on the Cup). More to the point, though, the trustees aren't responsible to the players or the owners: They're responsible to the legacy left behind by Lord Stanley of Preston, and they seem to have forgotten or ignored that fact. This is a tremendous failure on their part.

This lockout should seriously bother the Cup's trustees. The NHL's corporate control over the awarding of the Cup isn't supporting amateur hockey in Canada or North America. The fact that the Stanley Cup may not be awarded in two seasons during the governance of O'Neill and Morrison should embarrass them, especially since there was no genuinely good reason for the Cup's hiatus in either year. (In stark contrast to 1919, the only other year in which the Cup wasn't awarded, when the Spanish flu epidemic was killing tens of millions of people and infecting hundreds of millions.)

For further comment on the issue, I reached out to Michael McKinley, a renowned hockey historian and author who's chronicled the history of the game as well as the National Hockey League. In his opinion, the Cup should naturally be awarded to the champion of the American Hockey League playoffs, as the top level of hockey competition in North America:

"When Lord Stanley gave hockey--and the sporting world--his remarkable gift, there were no owners, and no professionals. He wanted the trophy to go to the best team in the Canada, and it was a challenge cup, so winning it meant that you could be challenged for it. It was a fluid kind of trophy intended to keep competition keen, and teams sharp. It has evolved into a 'possession is 9/10ths of the law' reality with the NHL, whose trustees apparently honour the spirit of Stanley's gift by restricting competition for the trophy to the NHL, though he imposed no such restriction.

"So, by the letter of the gift, it should be open to the best team playing in the best league playing in Canada (and North America, to be realistic) and that would be the AHL. It would be poetic justice, as well, considering how many AHLers could be playing in the NHL but for falling through the cracks of salary caps or depth charts or personality conflicts with management.

"Would the trophy's luster be diminished by the Abbotsford Heat winning it, given that it has also been won by the Kenora Thistles and the Victoria Cougars, who were best of their times? The NHL has never been much interested in its own history, though, so the sun will continue to shine on the Stanley Cup's NHL storage closet for the 2012-13 season unless reason rapidly descends on the NHL."

Whenever I look upon the Stanley Cup and see those dreaded three words under the 2004-05 season, "Season Not Played," I cringe. As inexcusable as potentially losing a second season in just nine years would be for the NHL, the fact of the matter is that the League is a business looking out for their corporate interests. The Stanley Cup is not. The Cup is a legacy. It deserves to be awarded, and Lord Stanley's wishes deserve to be honoured. If the NHL fails to come to an agreement with its players in time to compete for the Stanley Cup, the trophy should be awarded to the next best competitors. If it's not, Cup trustees Brian O'Neill and Scotty Morrison will have failed in their duties once again.

Let's hope it doesn't come to that.


Michael McKinley is the author of The Penalty Killing, a Martin Carter Mystery and Hockey: A People's History. He also has a book coming out on November 1, called Hockey Night: 60 Seasons published by Penguin and the CBC to mark the 60th anniversary of Hockey Night in Canada. You can pre-order the book on Amazon.

We've spoken with McKinley about his hockey writing in the past. To read more of his thoughts, check out the following articles:

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