/The World’s Greatest Trophy; a Look at the History of the Stanley Cup

The World’s Greatest Trophy; a Look at the History of the Stanley Cup

Every young athlete dreams of one thing: winning a championship. Think back to when you were playing hockey alone. Whether you were in the basement, out in the driveway, or at your local rink, the dream is basically all the same. It’s game 7 of the finals and your team just battled back and managed to tie the game at the end of regulation. The pressure is on as the seconds tick away. Then the play happens, your goalie makes the all-important save. The puck goes to the corner; a quick outlet pass hits your stick as you streak between the defenders. Through center ice you go soaring over the blue line into the opponents’ zone. The crowd rises in a slowing silence as you make your way towards the goalie. The period is coming to a close; you have one chance before time expires. A quick wrist shot and….BOOM! You’ve done it; you beat the goalie top shelf, the crowd goes wild, the announcers are calling your name. Then the moment you have been waiting for comes; you get handed the Stanley Cup and thrust it high above your head. Every sport has its trophies and medals but none are as special as the Stanley Cup.

Humble Beginnings…

Lord Stanley

Frederick Arthur Stanley, later know as Lord Stanley of Preston, was appointed by Queen Victoria as Governor General of Canada on June 11, 1888. He quickly fell in love with the game of hockey. His whole family would eventually play a role in the sport. He enjoyed it so much that, in 1892, he commissioned a trophy to the best amateur hockey club in Canada. This trophy was call the “Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup” which would later be named After Stanley. Lord Stanley decided on a few rules for who would win the Cup. A team would be challenged by another team and the victor would be awarded the trophy. He also set up 5 rules:

  1. The winners shall return the Cup in good order when required by the trustees so that it may be handed over to any other team which may win it.
  2. Each winning team, at its own expense, may have the club name and year engraved on a silver ring fitted on the Cup.
  3. The Cup shall remain a challenge cup, and should not become the property of one team, even if won more than once.
  4. The trustees shall maintain absolute authority in all situations or disputes over the winner of the Cup.
  5. If one of the existing trustees resigns or drops out, the remaining trustee shall nominate a substitute.
Original Bowl

Stanley appointed John Sweetland and Philip D. Ross as trustees of the Cup. Lord Stanley would unfortunately never see a Stanley Cup game nor present the cup. The trustees would present the Cup that following year. In 1893, that trophy would crown its first champion of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada (AHAC), the Montreal Hockey Club of the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. They defeated all contenders that season including the Ottawa Hockey Association’s team. The team from Ottawa was upset that Montreal was declared the top team in Canada, citing that the trustees had failed to convey the rules of the Cup. Sweetland and Ross laid down more specific rules on how the trophy would be awarded and defended.

  1. The Cup is automatically awarded to the team that wins the title of the previous Cup champion’s league without the need for any other special extra contest.
  2. Challengers for the Cup must be from senior hockey associations and must have won their league championship. Challengers will be recognized in the order in which their request is received.
  3. The challenge games (where the Cup could change leagues) are to be decided either in a one-game affair, a two-game total goals affair, or a best of three series, to the benefit of both teams involved. All matches would take place on the home ice of the champions, although specific dates and times would have to be approved by the trustees.
  4. Ticket receipts from the challenge games are to be split equally between both teams.
  5. If the two competing clubs cannot agree to a referee, the trustees will appoint one, and the two teams shall cover the expenses equally. If the two competing clubs cannot agree on other officials, the referee will appoint them, and the two clubs shall also pay the expenses equally
  6. A league could not challenge for the Cup twice in one season.


The Challenge Cup era was created. During this time no league had a formal playoff to determine a champion. Instead, the team that finished in first place was awarded the title. That year, the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada had 4 out of 5 teams tied for first place. The AHAC had no rules for a tie breaker. After negotiations and a withdraw of a team from Quebec, a 3-team tournament began. The Montreal Hockey Club, Montreal Victorias, and the Ottawa Hockey Club would enter. The team from Ottawa was given a bye into the finals as they were the “road” team. The two local teams battled it out with the Montreal HC defeating the Victorias, 3-2. This would be the first ever Stanley Cup Playoff game. A few days later, the first ever Stanley Cup Final would be played where the Montreal HC defeated the Ottawa HC and would be crowned two-time Cup winners.

In 1895, the first official challenger for the Cup would emerge. There were problems though as the Montreal Victorias were the first place team of the AHAC thus being awarded the Cup. The challenger was the previous winners of the Cup, the Montreal HC. The Cup trustees decided that if the Montreal HC won the challenge match, the Victorias would become the Stanley Cup champions. Montreal HC defeated the team from Queens University 5-1 and the Victorias were crowned Cup Champions. They became the first team to successfully challenge for the cup in 1896. The Winnipeg Victorias, the champions of the Manitoba Hockey Association, defeated the Montreal Victorias 2-0 to become the first team outside the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada to win the Cup.

The Stanley Cup grew in prestige as time went on, attracting the best talent from around Canada to play in the league. A push was made to start allowing professional players to play alongside the amateurs.

First Stanley Cup Team

Champions of the World!

In 1910, the National Hockey Association (NHA) was formed. The NHA soon proved it was the best in Canada. Originally, the Stanley Cup was just used to crown the best Canadian hockey team. In 1914, the Victoria Aristocrats of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA) challenged the then-Cup champion Toronto Blueshirts of the National Hockey Association (NHA). Initially, the challenge was rejected as the Cup trustees didn’t feel Victoria was an adequate contender. It was all down to paperwork, and the trustees eventually figured out that it was just a misunderstanding and a best-of-five game series was played. The Toronto Blue Shirts made a clean sweep of the Aristocrats, winning the series 3-0. Later that year, the Stanley Cup would expand from being awarded to the best team in Canada to being awarded to the best team in the World when an American team joined the Pacific Coast Hockey Association. Two years after joining the PCHA, the Portland Rosebuds would become the first American team to challenge for the Stanley Cup, losing to the Montreal Canadiens 3-2 in a best-of-five game series. The first American team to win the Stanley Cup was the Seattle Metropolitans in 1917. After that season, the National Hockey Association dissolved and the National Hockey League took over. The format for how the Stanley Cup would be awarded changed in 1922 with the creation of the Western Canada Hockey League (WCHL). Three leagues the competed for the Cup now: the NHL, PCHA, and the WCHL. This continued until the PCHA and the WHCL merged to form the Western Hockey League (WHL).

The Rise of the NHL

In 1926, the WHL folded and the NHL bought most the contracts from the WHL players, using the players to expand from it original six teams to nine teams. After the WHL folded, the Prairie Hockey League (PHL) replaced it. Unfortunately, due to the NHL buying the contracts of most of the WHL talent, the PHL would be considered a minor league and would not be granted the right to challenge for the Stanley Cup. This led to the NHL petitioning the Cup trustees to allow them to become the only league where the Stanley Cup could be awarded. With no other major leagues around to contend for the Cup, it became the de facto championship of the league. In 1947, the trustees reached an agreement to grant control of the Stanley Cup to the NHL which allowed the NHL to reject other leagues from challenging for the Cup.

In 1971, the World Hockey Association began to operate in North America. Although they were not the first league to compete with the NHL, they were the most successful. The World Hockey Association capitalized on the lack of teams in American and Canadian cities. They also hoped to attract the best players from the NHL by paying them more money. The World Hockey Association also brought in European players.

The issue the World Hockey Association had was stability. Teams were moving and folding midseason, and due to this, merger talks started. The World Hockey Association wanted to challenge for the Stanley Cup, but at the time, the Cup trustees were loyal to the NHL and rejected the bid. Feeling the pressure from the World Hockey Association, the NHL quietly stopped calling its champions, “World Champions”. The World Hockey Association and other leagues pressured to allow their champions to contend for the Stanley Cup but eventually the proposals went nowhere. The NHL would then solve the issues with the World Hockey Association by merging with them in 1979.

2004-05 Season Not Played

The Stanley cup was awarded every year from after the 1919 influenza outbreak until the 2004-05 season. A labor dispute between the league and the NHL Players Association (NHLPA), the union the represents the players, resulted in the 04-05 season being cancelled. As a result, there was no Stanley Cup champion for that year. The Cup trustees got together to work out what would happen in the event this problem occurred again. Hockey fans debated over whether or not the NHL should have complete control over the Cup. Some fans felt that the NHL should bring back the Challenger Series to award a Stanley Cup champion in the meantime. On February 7th, 2006, the trustees reached an agreement on what to do with the Cup. In the event that a season would not be played, the Stanley Cup would be awarded to a non NHL team. The discussions lasted so long that the NHL had solved its labor dispute and resumed operations. Thus, meaning that it would continue to be awarded to a NHL team. In 2012, the NHL was facing down yet another lockout, at which time the Cup trustees decided that it’s 2006 decision did not oblige them to award the Cup to a non-NHL team if the 2012-13 season was not played. The season wasn’t cancelled and the Stanley Cup remained in the NHL.

It’s Just Tradition.

Photo Time


Hoist it!
Replica Cup

The Stanley Cup has had a few changes to its size and appearance over the years. The original bowl was made of silver. It was just over 7 inches in height and a little under 11 and a half inches in diameter. The current Stanley Cup, topped with a copy of the original bowl, is made of a silver and nickel alloy; it stands just over 35 inches tall and weighs a whopping 34.5 pounds. There is only one Stanley cup. Well… technically there are three: the original bowl, the “Replica” cup (both are on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame), and the one given to the winning team after the Stanley Cup Finals are finished called the “Presentation cup”.

The cup is presented to the winning team’s captain after a small ceremony. The winners then hoist the Cup and take a victory skate around the rink, passing the Cup to each player. This wasn’t always the case though; prior to the 1930’s, the Stanley Cup was not awarded at the actual game but at a ceremony afterwards. The 1950 Cup champions Detroit Red Wings became the first team to take the cup, hoist it above their heads, and take the victory skate. NHL legend Wayne Gretzky is also the reason teams take the celebratory team picture with the Cup after winning. In what would be his final Stanley Cup win, he gathered his team and coaches for an impromptu photo. The traditions of hoisting the cup and a team photo have been a mainstay in the hockey world.

No Touching

There are also superstitions about touching the Stanley Cup. Players believe that they cannot touch the cup until their respective teams have earned the right to do so. This has also become the superstition for the Conference Trophies awarded to winners of their conference.  While some teams refuse to touch the Conference trophies in the hopes to hoist the Cup, other teams don’t feel the need to. In 2008, neither the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Detroit Red Wings touched either of their conference trophies. The Red Wings went on to defeat the Penguins that year. The following year, the teams got another chance, but this time Sidney Crosby of the Penguins hoisted the Wales Trophy and Pittsburgh defeated Detroit that Finals. Crosby then went on to repeat the hoisting of the conference trophy in another successful Stanley Cup winning season in 2016. During the 2012 season, the Los Angeles Kings took it one step further by leaving the Campbell Bowl in Phoenix after defeating the Phoenix Coyotes in the conference finals.

Sipping Champagne

Since 1994 and 1995, players of the winning team get an unofficial day with the cup. The New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils started the tradition by allowing members of its personnel to have one day alone with the cup. The Stanley Cup has had many adventures. It is most commonly used to drink champagne from. It has been used as a cereal bowl, a cooler, and even a baptismal pool. The Cup has traveled the world with players taking it back to their home country to be paraded for everyone to see. It has also been invited to the White House and Canadian Parliament and had roles in television shows and movies. The Stanley Cup has even gone on humanitarian missions. Unfortunately, the Cup has also had plenty of misadventures as well. It has been abused and misplaced, resulting in an official handler traveling with the Cup to ensure its safety. These “Keepers of the Cup” go wherever the Cup goes. The Stanley cup has been dented from drops, lost in rivers, and sunken to the bottom of a few pools. But even with all its travels, it is always brought back home with a few repairs and a bit of polishing.

Going for a swim

The Stanley cup is one of the oldest and most respected trophies in all of sports. Unlike other North American Sports trophies that are made every season, there is only one Stanley Cup. Engraved on its side are the names of every player who has ever won it. As a band fills up, the top-most band is removed and placed in the Hockey Hall of Fame to be displayed. From misspellings to omissions, every name on the Cup is visible when you get up close. The names represent a long history of triumph for the sport of hockey, each engraving laying out the foundation of the past with each empty space showing the promise of a bright future ahead for not only the NHL and other leagues but also hockey as a whole.


Jim McBride is the “Beyond the Ice” columnist for Good Night, Good Hockey. You can contact him at jmcbride@gnghockey.com.

Jim McBride is a Contributing Writer for Good Night Good Hockey. He also loves dogs. Note: He is not this dog. The primary way of contacting Jim is at this email: jmcbride@gnghockey.com.