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Don't lock out Lord Stanley's Cup, too

3/1/2005

It would make for difficult NBA road trips if Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash had to be like the white-gloved guy on the MasterCard commercial, traveling with the Stanley Cup in a trunk and polishing it after the morning shoot-arounds.

But Nash was one of the candidates on the ballot in a recent whimsical and
certainly non-binding election to "select" two new Canadian-born trustees
for the Stanley Cup.

The others on the ballot: Neil Young, Don Cherry, Hayley Wickenheiser,
Michael J. Fox, Anne Murray, Stompin' Tom Connors, Ted Nolan, Larry Walker
and Jean Beliveau.

"I haven't heard about that," Nash said with a smile during the NBA All-Star
Weekend in Denver.

But he also said he wouldn't mind sharing the duty with Young, even if the
rock icon's father, Scott, was a prominent Canadian sportswriter.

"Me and Neil will fill it with brewskis and have fun," Nash said.

Well, worse things have been done with Lord Stanley of Preston's 1892
departing gift to Canada during the winning players' temporary possession
of the Cup. But none have topped the ignominy of having the Cup going
through a dark year, which apparently is going to happen because of the NHL
season's cancellation.

World War II couldn't stop the Cup competition.

Only a Spanish Flu epidemic in 1919, and now Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow, could.

The folks at the Free Stanley organization -- Edmonton residents Tom
Thurston, Mark Suits and Michael Payne -- want to have the Cup awarded this
year, anyway. Payne is the historian and Thurston the exhibitions director
at the Alberta provincial museum. Suits is an artist who designs and
oversees the group's web site.

Alas for Nash and Young -- and maybe for Crosby and Stills, too -- the winners of the Free Stanley poll for new trustees were Beliveau and Cherry.

At first, this movement was a bit of a bitter joke, and the "election" for
new trustees was in keeping with that approach.

But now, following the cancellation of the season last week, the lobbying
has taken on a new tone. "We've been describing it as a lark, but a serious
lark," Suits said with a laugh Monday.

After taking that poll, Thurston, Suits and Payne have conceded that they
can't wrest control of the Cup away from the current trustees, Ian "Scotty"
Morrison and Brian O'Neill, officially based at the Hockey Hall of Fame in
Toronto. The goal instead is to convince Morrison and O'Neill to go along
with the proposal to put together an alternative Stanley Cup playoff
competition this year.

On the movement's web site (www.freestanley.com), fans are asked a series of questions about possible playoff or challenge formats, perhaps including Canadian and U.S. college teams, major junior teams under the Canadian
Hockey League umbrella, professional minor leagues and European leagues. It
could be a tournament or a playoff competition, and the possibilities are
myriad.

Whatever the format, the point is that the roots of the Stanley Cup pre-date
and have nothing to do with the NHL.

Lord Stanley spent 10 guineas for a Cup that at the time looked more like a
peanut dish than the multi-collared trophy it is now. The lame-duck governor
general ordained that his Cup be awarded to the amateur team adjudged to be
the best in Canada, and then he went back across the Atlantic. He appointed
two trustees and said that they would have "absolute authority" to decide
Cup matters.

It wasn't until 1927 that the NHL took control of the trophy, and 1946 that
the league was considered the "owner." O'Neill's and Morrison's roles are
more honorary and ceremonial than real, but they ARE officially listed as
the Cup trustees.

Before the cancellation of the season, the movement got enough attention and
become serious enough to move the NHL to issue an official statement, in
which executive vice president Bill Daly said the league wasn't "concerned
about a potential challenge for the Stanley Cup." Daly said that "if or
when" a season cancellation occurred, the league would go over the
documentation tied to its control of the Cup "and make an appropriate
determination."

Here's my choice: Award the Stanley Cup to the same team that wins Canada's Allan Cup, the trophy brought into existence in 1908 as an acknowledgement
that the Stanley Cup had been transformed into a prize for professionals. If
the Free Stanley movement wants to salute Lord Stanley's original intent and
the tradition of the trophy, it should go to Canadian amateurs. Not to
major-junior players who receive significant stipends or can still play in
the CHL after being drafted and signing pro contracts. Not to U.S. college
players who receive lucrative scholarships. Not even to pro minor-leaguers
who aspire to reach the NHL.

Take it all the way back to its amateur roots, as the antithesis to what the
NHL has become.

That's my vote, but it probably doesn't matter.

"I can understand their passion," Morrison said Monday from Montreal. "But
the truth of the matter is that the NHL was designated as the owner of the
Cup in 1946."

He said he has been hearing from some of the Free Stanley proponents, but
remains unswayed. But Free Stanley has obtained a legal opinion -- not
binding or powerful, of course -- that the current trustees have complete
control of the Cup. Their argument is that if the trustees can be convinced
to allow a competition to replace the NHL playoffs, there is hope.

"We know they're saying that," Suits said of the league's and the trustees'
stand that the NHL controls the trophy. "We're well aware of the amendments
to the trust they're talking about. The legal opinion we obtained says, and
our opinion is too, that these amendments aren't valid. A trustee can't just
rewrite their own trust agreements and delegate powers."

Suits said the group is contemplating legal action, probably in Ontario. But
that would be expensive -- and probably futile. "What we would love to have
happen is have one of the remaining premier hockey teams still playing
somewhere issue a formal challenge," he said.

In all seriousness, the movement underscores the deteriorating state of the
relationship between the fans and both sides in the labor dispute that led
to the cancellation. Lord Stanley couldn't have foreseen this, but even he
undoubtedly had visions of an implied trust being necessary to maintain
competitive credibility.

If it will help release some frustration, by all means, let the folks at
Free Stanley know your preferences at www.freestanley.com. Or drop a line,
whether through snail mail or e-mail, to Morrison and O'Neill through the
Hockey Hall of Fame. Or both.

What the heck, take a shot -- which is more than any NHL player will be doing
in serious North American competition this spring.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the recently published "Third Down and a War to Go," and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."