Oldest vets to get day with the Cup

As many as 40 of hockey's oldest surviving Stanley Cup winners, most in their 80s and 90s, will get to keep the Cup for a day.

Updated: May 24, 2005, 8:59 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

The Stanley Cup has been to the top of mountains and the bottom of swimming pools. It has visited Finnish saunas, Canadian strip clubs and the Kremlin. It has sat graveside for silent visits with fathers, mothers and grandparents. Now, for the first time, the venerable Cup will be going back in time into the gnarled hands of the men who helped build the game.

With the Stanley Cup idled for the first time since the influenza epidemic of 1919, the NHL and the league's alumni association have combined to produce a feel-good story for this misbegotten hockey season with a plan that will send the Cup out to the oldest surviving Cup winners.

By the end of the summer, it's hoped as many as 40 of the game's oldest surviving Cup winners, most in their 80s and 90s, will get to experience what has become an annual tradition for Stanley Cup winners, an intimate visit with the most famous sporting trophy in the world.

In some cases, these players will celebrate their day with the Cup almost 70 years after their names were first etched on the trophy.

"It would have meant much more back then. But it just wasn't done," Red Wings great Ted Lindsay said. "Back then, the Stanley Cup parade went from center ice to the dressing room. That was the parade."

The idea for the Cup to pay a visit to some of the game's early champions had its genesis with Lindsay, a four-time Cup winner with Detroit who played 17 NHL seasons.

Lindsay happened to be chatting with Bernadette Mansur, group vice president of communications for the NHL, at a league function and remarked on how he and his teammates never had the same opportunity current Cup winners have to take the Cup to family events or to their hometowns.

"The fact Ted Lindsay had never gotten the Cup, the lightbulb goes off because that's something that needs to happen," Mansur said. "The history of the Stanley Cup is so strong and the aura of the Stanley Cup is so strong and the travels of the Stanley Cup have been enormous. People who were builders have never gotten their opportunity with the Cup. You need to address that."

It just took some planning and a crippling lockout to bring the idea to fruition.

Since 1994, the members of the Stanley Cup-winning organization have been allowed a day with the Cup to do, within reason, anything they please. Fulfilling that schedule generally fills the entire offseason. And given the Cup's heavy in-season schedule – NHL playoffs, entry draft, All-Star weekend, Hall of Fame weekend – there simply hasn't been enough time to launch the program with previous winners. But with the 2004-05 season canceled by the lockout that began Sept. 16, the plan dovetails perfectly with the open Cup schedule.

"This is in no way, shape or form a publicity stunt by the NHL," insisted alumni association president Brian Conacher, who won a Cup with the 1967 Maple Leafs.

Given the battering the league has taken during the lockout, it's easy to see how some might view this as simply an example of corporate opportunism. But even the most cynical of hockey observers has to admit that honoring these players in this manner is a much-needed warm fuzzy.

"Back then, the guys didn't get much for winning the Stanley Cup. If you go back a long ways, they didn't even get a Stanley Cup ring," Conacher said. "It was the moment that they shared. And after it was over, that was it."

"For some of them, it's like winning the Stanley Cup again," he said.

The first batch of letters inviting players to take part has gone out, and the first visits are expected to begin sometime in June.

"It was a surprise [to many players], and the response has been extraordinary," Mansur said.

Among the oldest surviving Cup winners are Clint Smith, 91, who won a Cup with the 1940 Rangers, and Ray Getliffe, also 91, who won two Cups, one with the Bruins in 1939 and one with the Canadiens in 1944.

Getliffe makes his home in London, Ontario, and was honored by the London Knights during the opening weekend of the Memorial Cup a few days ago.

The winger who played for 10 seasons is credited with giving Maurice "Rocket" Richard his nickname during training camp before Richard's sophomore season. He told reporters at the Memorial Cup that he'd like to hold a charity event in conjunction with his day with the Cup.

Lindsay is wondering whether it will be possible to arrange his visit with the Cup to coincide with his 80th birthday in July – although he has already planned a family reunion in northern Michigan to mark the occasion. He is also considering taking it to his hometown of Kirkland Lake in northern Ontario, "where I learned all my hockey."

"I'm not sure one day is enough for me," Lindsay joked.

The visits, whatever form they take, will doubtless be emotional events.

Lindsay, for instance, is the last of nine children still living. He recalls with a mixture of pride and disappointment his final Cup win in 1955.

The Red Wings had just defeated the powerful Canadiens in the seventh game for their second Cup win in a row and fourth in six years. But Jack Adams ("one of the dumbest managers in the history of the league," Lindsay insists) traded away nine players that offseason. The Wings would not win another championship for 42 years.

Lindsay has maintained close ties with the Red Wings, but even when the team was winning three Cups between 1997 and 2002, he said, he never thought about having the Cup to himself.

"It never entered my mind," Lindsay said. "My wife has a saying, 'You can't miss what you never had.' We had it in our time that our one goal was to win the Stanley Cup. That was the fulfillment of that goal."

That said, Lindsay will relish his chance to spend some quality time with the big mug.

"I will do that. I will enjoy it to the fullest," he said.

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.