"I have for some time been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup, which would be held from year to year by the leading hockey club in Canada. There does not appear to be any outward sign of a championship at present, and considering the interest that hockey matches now elicit, I am willing to give a cup which shall be held annually by the winning club."
So mused Lord Stanley of Preston in 1892, at a sports banquet in Ottawa.
The following year, Canada's governor-general was true to his word, purchasing a silver bowl for $50 and naming it the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup. Hockey folks went with a less formal designation, the Stanley Cup.
The first winner was a Montreal AAA (Montreal Amateur Athletic Association), team that finished atop the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada, considered the best league going at the time.
In its early years, the Stanley Cup was not exclusive to one hockey league, nor was it meant to be. It was a "challenge cup," changing hands in much the same way as a boxing title.
Contenders issued challenges, and the champions held the Cup for as long as they could fend off all comers. Independent trustees ensured that legitimate challenges were met on a regular basis.
In later years, as professionalism swept the game, it was accepted that the Stanley Cup could not remain exclusive to amateur teams.
The Stanley Cup officially turned pro in 1910, when the National Hockey Association took possession of it.
By 1926 the National Hockey League had emerged indisputably as the top league in North America, and the NHL assumed control of the Cup. That control was formalized in an agreement signed with the Cup trustees in 1947.
The original Stanley Cup bowl was presented to the annual champions until 1970, when it was retired to a vault in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
A replica, built in 1963, has been used since then.