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An Audience With the Stanley Cup
A Stanley Cup winner comes home with hockey's greatest prize.
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The infant boy in the Red Wings' jersey looks like he would rather go home, but he is about to meet the Stanley Cup. Whispering, "don't cry now," his father lifts him up and nestles him in the NHL's precious, gleaming bowl.

But the slippery silver swallows the little guy; his butt slips forward and his legs poke up over the rim. He begins to wail. Acting quickly, dad pulls him up and stands him upright, and that's how the camera catches the moment: A bewildered baby perched unsteadily in hockey's greatest prize, propped up by his father on one side and Kirk Maltby of the Detroit Red Wings on the other.

Every summer, each member of the NHL's championship team is afforded one full day with the Stanley Cup, to do with it as he pleases. Today is Kirk Maltby's turn. He has brought the Cup home to Cambridge, Ontario and this afternoon he's at the local rink for photo ops. It is a hazy, sticky Sunday, but a long lineup snakes out the doors and around the parking lot of the Hespeler Memorial Arena.

It is an all-ages assortment, a panorama of ball caps and tank tops, black socks and Bermuda shorts, hockey jerseys (mostly Red Wings' jerseys, of course), beer bellies, sun burnt noses and brown legs. They eat hot dogs, tolerate a garrulous DJ from the local radio station and watch impatient kids run up and down the sidewalk. The only sign of agitation is a goateed frat boy on a cell, arguing with his girlfriend. ("I'll be over as soon as I'm done with this… Um, maybe an hour… Come on, you don't mean that…")

Lord Stanley's mug, to use the sportswriter's venerable catchphrase, has really emerged from its shell in recent years. There was a time when the Cup made public appearances only when absolutely necessary. But now it stars in TV commercials and magazine ads, tours major media properties like Hockey Night In Canada, Sports Illustrated and Late Night With David Letterman, and logs thousands of miles to visit cities and towns all over North America and Europe. Like Bob Dylan, the Stanley Cup seems to always be on the road.

So could Le Coupe Stanley, as our Francophone friends know it, end up devalued, its allure and mystery sapped by overexposure? You might think so, until you see the reactions of those who meet it.

The lineup at the Hespeler Arena leads to a conference room where the man of the hour (three hours, actually) stands on a raised platform with the grail at his side. A buzz ripples through the line as the trophy comes into view, rings shimmering. Kirk Maltby, still looking fresh, exchanges quick pleasantries with the endless stream of kids, couples and families, all of whom reach out to the grail, gripping the rim, draping an arm around it and plopping babies in the basin.

These days, sports fans tend to keep their guard up. Even the most dedicated temper their passion with a hint of detachment, too worldly to be awestruck by mercenary jocks. But the Stanley Cup remains an authentic object of worship, one that players and fans alike truly believe in. It is the NHL's most valuable asset, unchanged and unspoiled through the years, retaining its power to melt cynicism and deflate irony.

A visit with the Stanley Cup is a tactile experience. In a more relaxed setting - say, during a quiet afternoon at the Hockey Hall of Fame - you can circle it, reading the names of champions past. You can track down your favorite player and run your fingertips over the smooth, cool silver of his engraved name. On special occasions, a lucky few get to hold the Cup in their hands (you cannot, however, lift it over your head, a gesture reserved for those who win it).

But only the youngest fans can fit in the bowl. Years from now, maybe when the young man brings home his first girlfriend, dad will embarrass him by breaking out the photo album and pointing to a picture from the summer of 2002: "Here's me, and here's little Johnny in his Red Wings' sweater, standing right in the Cup! And that blond guy holding Johnny's hand is Kirk Maltby of the Detroit Red Wings. He won it that year, and he brought it home to Cambridge."

 

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