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

Updated: March 1, 2005, 3:25 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

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.

Ron MacLean / Don Cherry
Don Cherry (right) was voted as a new trustee for the Stanley Cup.
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."

Stanley Cup
The Stanley Cup won't be awarded for the first time since 1919.
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."

Terry Frei

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

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