Niedermayer brothers add special chapter to Cup's storied travels
CRANBROOK, British Columbia -- On days like these, the Stanley Cup is less a trophy than a gift; a rare, shiny, sparkling gift to family, to friends, a community.
It is the kind of gift so few get the chance to bestow, its value is almost impossible to determine.
It is about 10 minutes before the Stanley Cup is due to arrive at the RecPlex arena and recreation complex in downtown Cranbrook, where thousands will fete brothers Scott and Rob Niedermayer. But with the clock ticking down, the brothers detour away from the rink to a quiet downtown side street. The brothers and their entourage -- keepers of the Cup, Mike Bolt and Walt Neubrand from The Hockey Hall of Fame, media from ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times and the Anaheim Ducks organization -- pile out of cars and file into a nondescript house with a small sign out front that reads "Stefan's Hair Studio."
There is a yelp of surprise and within seconds, owner Stefan Zhukrovsky and son Conner, 12, are holding the Stanley Cup in front of the shop. Long before the Niedermayer brothers were even draft prospects, long before the arrival of the Stanley Cup in Cranbrook, the pair were regular customers at Stefan's.Customers, including a woman with her hair covered in some sort of plastic styling apparatus, appear on the front porch to marvel at the scene.
A few days earlier, the brothers' mother, Carol, a loyal customer, asked Zhukrovsky if he was going to be able to attend the rally at the local rink. He said he didn't think his schedule would allow him to take part. So Carol asked her boys if they wouldn't mind stopping by with the world's most famous sports trophy.
"Our mom gave us strict orders," Scott tells the hair stylist with a smile.
Hours later, Zhukrovsky is still shaking his head at the visit.
"I just can't believe it. Just to take the time, that they would do that for their mom," said Zhukrovsky, who has operated his salon in this mountain community since 1976. "I bet you they had five bloody minutes. That's bloody incredible. You look at the demands on them. What a gesture to do that."
If the Stanley Cup is symbolic of hockey's greatest team achievement, then the ritual of allowing every member of the winning team to have the Stanley Cup for a day (or in the case of the Niedermayers, three days) is symbolic of this kind of gesture.
Over the course of three days, the brothers will make countless gestures of a similar nature. Some will involve hundreds of strangers; some will involve close friends and family. Each moment will mean something special, something different to every single person.
The Stanley Cup arrives, as it always does during its hectic summer tour, from somewhere else.
In this case, the Cup arrives in Cranbrook this past Sunday evening having made memories for former teammate Mark Hartigan, now with Detroit, in the oilfield community of Fort McMurray, Alberta.
The summer has not been kind to the historic silver mug and Bolt and Neubrand warn Rob Niedermayer, who has met the traveling party at the airport, he has to be gentle, that the bowl at the top is a bit loose from wear and tear.
The Cup, safely ensconced in its travel-worn blue box, appears in front of the airport on a big cart under a collection of luggage. Baggage claim in Cranbrook, as it turns out, is in the parking lot while the small airport undergoes renovations.
A few people glance at Rob Niedermayer and his new bride, Jess, but there isn't a crush of attention. The brothers not only grew up in Cranbrook, but return to the area every summer. They are celebrities to be sure, but they are familiar enough that it transcends the other-worldly quality that many pro athletes assume.
It is about 8 p.m. local time and Rob is worried about the fading light. He'd like to get some pictures taken and he's got a couple of visits he'd like to make before calling it a night.
There are, it appears, no straight roads in the Kootenay area of southeastern British Columbia. It is all incline or decline, up and down, approaching jagged peaks or declining into lush valleys.
There are signs regularly warning motorists about nigh collisions with deer and other animals. A sign outside the airport warns there is no hunting. Facing Cranbrook from the west are the Purcell Mountains, while the Rockies flank the community to the north and east. Depending on the time of day, the mountains appear to take on different personalities. Sometimes, in the bright light of the day, they appear friendly and inviting; other times, dark purple and foreboding. As Rob stops at the side of the road next to Norbury Lake at the base of a range known as The Steeples, the peaks disappear into clouds.
While Jesse and Rob figure out an entry point to the shore of the lake for a few pictures, a young boy and a man carrying a remote-controlled speedboat wander by.
"What's that? The Stanley Cup?" the man asks, more than a little puzzled at its appearance here, in the middle of nowhere. "We thought it was wildlife."
A short while later, the group stops to take more pictures facing another range of mountains. There are jokes about Rob's best side (it's not his front), but he doesn't seem to mind. The Cup appears to not bear any weight as the 32-year-old hoists it over his head. A man in a cowboy hat joins the group. Neubrand introduces himself and asks the man's name and he introduces himself as "Barney, Barney Bentall."
"You are not," says Neubrand incredulously, fearing his colleagues are trying to put one over on him.
Actually, the man in the cowboy hat is Barney Bentall, the popular Canadian musician/songwriter who is Jess' dad and Rob's new father-in-law. Bentall's band, The Legendary Hearts, has recorded five gold records since 1988 and, according to his Web site, sold 10 million albums world wide. He traveled from the province's picturesque interior to join the party. At first, Bentall is reluctant to pick up the Cup, but with Rob's insistence he does.
"I was thinking, 'I can't do this.'" he explains. "I didn't think I should do that. You want to be really respectful of the thing. It's a Canadian treasure."
Moments later, the Stanley Cup arrives at the ranch home of Albert Comfort, interrupting a game of rummoli, a Canadian board game created in 1940."Oh, it's really here," someone says from inside.
With the help of two canes, patriarch Albert Comfort makes his way to the back porch, where the Stanley Cup is set up on a table. Comfort first moved to the property in 1958. For years, Rob had asked if Comfort ever wanted to sell this parcel of land, that Rob would get a chance to make an offer. In the end, the deal to sell the property to Rob was cemented with a handshake. The two have become friends, and on this evening, Niedermayer delivers an unexpected gift in the Cup itself.
"This is a big deal when the Cup comes to us. It's enormous," says Comfort.
The Cup moves in darkness a few miles down another twisting, up-and-down road to the farm of the family that manages Rob Niedermayer's ranch during the season. Soon, Lord Stanley rests on a bed of hay that looks like it's just been baled. Rob and Jess are soon astride horses, cowboy hats perched on their heads, matching Ducks jerseys on their backs. There are dogs, horses and some 30 friends who patiently wait their turn for a chance to pose with Rob, his new bride and the Stanley Cup.
Given the comfort and ease with which the couple move among this group, one might have imagined they were all blood relatives or childhood friends. They aren't. But there is no sense of "celebrity" unless one considers the deference paid to the Cup itself, the only "celebrity" in attendance on this evening.
"They're actually incredibly like us," explains Alana Mallard who, along with husband Jess, looks after the Niedermayer holdings during the season. In the offseason, that relationship has moved seamlessly into friendship.
"I think they're going to settle here. I think they're going to stay here and get old and gray just like we are," confesses Mallard with more than a trace of pride in her voice.
A few moments later, the group produces an impromptu rendition of "O Canada" that hangs in the suddenly chilly night air and, for a moment, drowns out the yapping of the dogs and the snickering of the horses.
The next afternoon at the RecPlex, the brothers bestow a different gift, less personal and yet no less selfless, on the community where they grew up.
For close to three hours, the brothers stand next to the Cup and pose for pictures and sign autographs. They smile non-stop, they hoist babies in and out of the hallowed trophy and they embrace youngsters and sign pictures and articles of clothing and hunks of paper.
For much of that time, the line of people waiting for their brush with history (and the Niedermayers) stretches almost the full circumference of the arena. The signing session lasts so long, the local major junior team, the Kootenay Ice, arrives for an informal scrimmage. Even though the doors were supposed to have been locked long before, more fans arrive. Even as the line dwindles to a few individuals, Scott and Rob take time to pose with youth soccer and hockey teams.
Scott's wife, Lisa, is helping to ensure the photo process goes as smoothly as can be expected. She and her new sister-in-law, Jess, and other family members are also manning a table at which signed photographs of Scott and Rob are being sold for $10 each. The proceeds will benefit a local girl who is battling cancer. Before the afternoon is completed, the throng will have contributed some $5,000 to the fund. A similar photo sale in Fernie the next day will benefit local charities in that community.
Lisa, who also grew up in Cranbrook, recalls the first time Scott won the Cup back in 1995. He was 21 turning 22 and had no way of preparing for what the Cup's arrival would mean to this community of about 18,000.
That first year, the Cup didn't actually show up, at least not on schedule, putting a bit of a damper on a big family party the Niedermayers had planned. When the Cup finally did make its way to Cranbrook the next day, Scott spent literally the entire day outside the old arena signing autographs in the sun, the crowd simply never diminishing.
"That was basically all we did," Lisa said.
During the two subsequent Cup visits, Scott has taken it to firefighters' battling blazes in the surrounding forests and a host of other community events. But here they are, the good folks of Cranbrook, still lining up for hours for the chance to stand next to the trophy and their hometown heroes.
"I guess they aren't tired of the Stanley Cup after all," offers one local man, looking at the line of people.
Among those on hand for the event is Glen Popoff, who runs a Web site devoted to local sporting matters. He has followed the Niedermayers' careers "from a day one sort of thing," he said. Popoff recalled one local skating show with a "Star Wars" theme in which a young Scott played Darth Vader and Rob was an Imperial Storm Trooper. Oh, to have pictures of that performance.
Popoff cannot say enough about the brothers' impact on the community, whether it's donating money to minor hockey or showing up to play softball or touch football.
"They never say no to any community thing," Popoff said.
And then there's the Cup itself.
"It never gets old," Popoff said of the Cup's return. "It's phenomenal. It's the talk of the town. It's the talk of this community."
Given past history, the Niedermayers might not have bothered with this event at all, or the parade the next morning in Fernie, or the autograph session. After all, few could have complained if the brothers had simply disappeared with the Cup into their homes for these three days. But this is Rob Niedermayer's first turn hosting the Cup, so it was important to him that he too play the good host and do his part as his brother has done in the past to ensure the Cup is shared.
Along with Scott's impending decision regarding his future, the brothers' sharing of this unique experience is one of the compelling elements of this Stanley Cup visit. Asked if it's possible to describe what it means to Rob to have this opportunity, his wife pauses.
"It'd be hard to put into words," Jess says. "He didn't talk too much about it, but I know when Scott brought it back home [in the past], I know it was really hard for him. Now, he's so happy. He can touch it and hold it over his head."
The next day, after signing autographs for several more hours in front of the Fernie City Hall, the brothers and the Cup board a chair lift at the Fernie Alpine Resort riding slowly to an elevation of 5,600 feet.
It is, in a word, spectacular.
Looking out over the Elk River Valley, Rob admits it was difficult in the past to know how to feel when his brother brought the Cup home. Once, during the summer of 2003, it arrived not long after Scott's New Jersey Devils bested Rob and the then-Mighty Ducks in a seven-game Cup finals.
"I always want to see him have as much success as he can possibly have. But sometimes you started wonder, 'Am I ever going to get a chance to win it?'" Rob acknowledges.
Sometimes, he'd walk into the living room at his mother's house (the brothers' parents divorced and their father Bob, a local doctor, has remarried) and the Cup would be sitting in the living room.
"And, of course, I couldn't touch it," explains Rob.
That changed, of course, when Scott signed with Anaheim as a free agent after the lockout. The two traveled to games and practices along with teammates Chris Pronger and netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere. And, in early June, the brothers stood shoulder to shoulder, raising the Stanley Cup over their heads. This fall, their names will be inscribed on that same Cup, presumably side by side, a permanent testament to not just athletic accomplishment, but the difficult-to-define power of family.
"I'm sure glad it turned out the way it did," Rob says. "It just means that much more to win it together."
As for sharing the Cup with an entire region, Rob acknowledges the days have been hectic and he knows the time with the Cup will pass alarmingly quickly.
"You never know if you're going to get another chance," he said.
But he insists he wouldn't have done anything differently. "Without your family, without your community, we wouldn't be here," Rob said.
Cliché? Maybe. Yet, over the course of three days, whether it's a visit to their father's medical building or the fire hall in Fernie or the RCMP detachment in Cranbrook ("I've never been here before," Scott says as they mount the steps. "I guess that's a good thing."), the brothers' actions suggest this is a belief not just a catchphrase.
"You want to share it with people that helped you along the way," Rob says.
Scott seems oddly perplexed people might not view the Cup this way, that someone might rather keep the Cup private.
"Well, it feels good when you make people happy, when you can do something that makes them smile," Scott explains. "And this is easy, with the Cup. You show up and you've done it."
There's a picture of Scott taken after the Devils' 2000 Cup win. He is standing on top of Fisher's Peak near Cranbrook, holding the Cup aloft. He and a photographer took a helicopter to the spot and the image makes it look as though he is standing on top of the world.
This week, late in the day, the Stanley Cup returned to a similar spot. This time, though, the two Niedermayer brothers stand shoulder to shoulder. The trophy was once again held out to the sky, and, once again, it appeared as though they were, indeed, on top of the world.
And, in that moment, who could argue they weren't?
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.