When most people go to the airport, they make sure they have two hours to get through security and to the gate. But when Philip Pritchard needs to fly somewhere, he makes sure he gets to the airport even earlier than that, because everyone wants a picture with his very special cargo.
Pritchard is one of the Keepers of the Stanley Cup (he's got the Twitter handle to prove it), traveling with it to appearances and, in the summer, to the homes of hockey players whose team has taken the sport's top prize. "Craig Campbell [and I] walk the Cup out on the red carpet the night it is presented," Pritchard says. "During the summer, myself, Mike Bolt, Howie Borrow and Walter Neubrand travel with the Cup around the world."
When he’s not squiring the Cup around, Pritchard is the Vice President and Curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. We called him at his office to find out what it’s like to be Keeper of the Cup.
How did the Cup tradition get started?
Lord Stanley of Preston donated the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup to amateur hockey in Canada in 1892; the first winners were in 1893. The tradition of the Cup going player to player evolved over a number of years, and in 1995, the New Jersey Devils were the first team that had every player on the team get a chance to take the cup home for a day.
Upper Deck released a limited run of cards of the guys who are considered Keepers of the Cup.
Where is the Cup when it’s not traveling around?
It’s on display in the [Hockey Hall of Fame] museum. It’s probably less [often at the museum] because besides the summer, when the guys get it, the National Hockey League and the Hall of Fame do a lot of promotions and charity work for different charities and promoting the game of hockey and minor sport across Canada and North America—so it’s on the road quite a lot.
[When the Cup is on the road,] we have a double that’s on display. The staff will say this is a duplicate; the real one is in LA today or wherever we happen to be. We didn’t have a duplicate up until 1993. Probably the first 100 years of the Stanley Cup, there was only one. The real one is the one that travels all the time. When you see it out there on the road, that’s the real Stanley Cup.
How do you decide where the Cup will appear? Can just anyone book it?
The Hockey Hall of Fame works closely with the NHL on appearances. We get over 1000 requests a year from teams, leagues, charities … where possible, we try and assist when we can, especially with promoting the game and raising money for charities. Anyone can put in a request, except for corporations or businesses that are not partners.
How do you travel with it?
[Before 9/11], we used to have that opportunity to carry it on. I prefer that the airline take it from us and put it in a special spot underneath the plane—it’s called special services, and violins and bikes go there as well. But in Europe, the airlines will let us bring it on still. It gets its own seat—but the problem is that the flight attendants aren’t very happy because people keep getting up to get photos with it. It’s much better for the airplane [crew] if it goes underneath. When we check it in, they know we’re coming. We’ve already arranged it with the airline and security at the airport. One person from the airline is dedicated to taking and putting it on the plane and then meeting us and saying it’s on the plane, when you get off come to special services, or this guy will meet you.
It is a VIP luggage section, so we get treated very well there. We always get there half an hour sooner than we should be because everyone wants photos.
I can’t even imagine getting through security with it.
[The TSA] scans it, obviously, but then once you open it up, suddenly the person has gone from being a TSA security guy to a hockey fan who wants to get a photo of it. It’s great—it’s promoting the game and everything, but at the end of it all, to me, it’s the greatest trophy in all of sports and to be there half an hour early, to make some guy’s day, it’s pretty cool.
How do you pack the Cup for traveling? Do you have a special case for it?
Yeah, we do. We have a special case that’s very similar to a musician’s case. It’s all form fitted. If you open the case and the Cup’s not in it, it actually looks like the Stanley Cup in there. It’s all secure in that way. And then we can go to the airlines, the police, security, and it’s always in good hands.
Cup keepers Walt Neubrand, Howie Borrow, Phil Pritchard and Mike Bolt.
What's the most insane Cup-related travel story you have?
Flying from Paris to Stockholm once, [the airline] wouldn't allow it on the flight because of its size. It took a lot of talks with managers and then we lifted the Cup out of the case and placed it on the table, and two people from Minnesota—tourists—just happened to be walking by and started freaking out and getting photos. Then I think the airline realized the importance of it. France is traditionally not a hockey country, however one player on a team that won the Cup was from France.
Do the players get the Cup before or after their names are chiseled on it?
They get it before, actually. It takes about 10 days. What we do is, we try, when they go back to training camp, to get the Cup engraved so when it comes back into the town for their home opener celebration week, their names are on it. And that’s a special party itself, when they actually see their names on it for the first time.
Can you tell me a little bit about how the process works when it’s going around to players? Are you really there with them and the Cup at all times?
When a team wins the Cup, they get 100 days with it—from when they win until their home opener, which is October sometime. During those 100 days, the players, the coach and staff, the owners, the scouts, they all get that opportunity with it. We work closely with the team and the NHL to set up a schedule that is basically done geographically around the world. Looking at the Rangers' and Kings’ rosters, both teams—they have guys in Canada and the U.S. The Rangers have Czechs, Norway. The Kings have Russians, Slavs. Whoever wins this year, it will be a world tour. And someone is with it all the time.
It sounds like that would be so awkward, to show up at a stranger's house and have to spend all day there. What's it like for you?
The first 20 minutes is kind of socially awkward. We show up and everybody is so excited and they’re getting their photos and they’ve got their family members there and then all of a sudden it’s “Oh yeah, Phil’s here.” Once that happens, they make you feel like you’re family for the day. It’s unbelievable. The whole [hockey] team is a family, but then you go to their real families, and you become part of that family for the day. Then you move on to the next family. And so on.
Are they grilling you about the Cup’s history, or are they mostly just enjoying their time with it?
It’s both. Obviously, they love their time with it, and the players thank you. After a while, they want to start knowing about the history. I remember when the [Los Angeles] Kings won, we were finishing off Dustin Brown's day, and he said, “If I ever get the opportunity to win again, I wanna have all the Cup keepers over at my house and we’ll have a big bonfire and we’ll just trade hockey stories. That’s all I want to do.”
All the guys, they have so much respect for what the Cup is and what it represents, and when they’re coming back to their small town, wherever that may be—Canada, U.S., Slovenia, Russia, wherever—they are understanding that they are part of a Stanley Cup winning team. They are part of the National Hockey League and they have a great honor and a great privilege to take the Cup home to say thank you to all of those people who helped them along the way.
I think they would understand as much anyone that a team is more than who’s on the ice. It’s their moms and dads and sisters and grandparents and favorite shop in town. On their day, we see them all. “Oh, we gotta go here. This is where I used to eat pizza. This guy is great!” It’s an emotional roller coaster for the day. Unfortunately, in some cases, when some people bring it home, their loved ones have passed away and they go to a cemetery and they sit there. It’s very powerful, very emotional for them. They've achieved their highest goal, but they’ve lost someone along the way.
What’s the weirdest thing you have seen done with the Cup?
We’ve had christenings out of the Cup. It’s been mountain climbing, it’s been fishing in canoes, it’s been to sauna parties, it’s had specialty foods eaten out of it. In saying all that, when I break each one down and explain who it was and why, it all has to do with the guy and his culture and his upbringing.
Saunas are huge in Finland, so every time a Finnish guy wins, they end their day in a sauna. It’s just part of their culture. So Teemu Selänne [of the Anaheim Ducks], when he finished his day, we were in a sauna with all his buddies. And for Finns, that’s the greatest thing ever. When you’re out in British Columbia area, the Rocky Mountains are a big part of their world. They’ve grown up in the Rockies, so they want to kinda celebrate with the Rocky Mountains. [Scott] Niedermayer rented a helicopter and took it to the top of the Rocky Mountains. Tomáš Kopecký, his family is deep into the culture of Slovakia and they have this special soup that’s from their region—it translates to "inside of a cow’s stomach" soup. He ate the soup out of [the bowl of the Cup]. He said, “It was a big part of my upbringing and this is part of what I want to do.”
So all of these things, they sound weird, but when you explain it or they explain it to you, it’s very satisfying for them—it’s very respectful of their upbringing, culture, and traditions.
Pritchard (center) with Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask (bottom) in Finland.
I’m amazed something like eating soup out of the Cup is allowed.
It is, and I go back to that word respect. [The players] would never do anything that would damage it. So when they’re eating the soup out of it, it’s kind of like in a Tupperware™ container, inside the bowl, so they’re not actually touching the Cup with their fork or scratching it or anything. They know they’ve become part of this fraternity of a Stanley Cup winner. They’re so proud and they’re not going to do anything to damage not only the Cup, but their name or the team or the league or the game of hockey itself. Every day, we clean it before we go out on the road so it looks spotless when we’re ready to go.
Is there anything that a player has wanted to do with the Cup that you've had to veto?
Most players are all respectful of what it is and what it represents. However, their buddies view it differently, and that’s when we have to step in.
I read that the Cup has a midnight curfew. Is that true?
In today’s world of social media—YouTube and Tumblr and Vine and all this—it’s probably the safest for the players, and the Cup itself, that we’re kind of out of the public eye and ready for the new day [by that point]. It’s actually a blessing in disguise for the guys because, though they love it when we show up in the morning at 8 or 8:30 a.m.—they are so thrilled—the whole day they're the focal point. The whole community is looking at them. They play a team sport and they are used to team things. So by midnight, when we’re saying our goodbyes, they are physically and mentally exhausted. They love seeing the Cup and love hanging out with it, but at the end of the day, they kind of are thankful for their time alone again.
You mentioned that you clean the Cup every day. How do you clean it?
During the season, and during the summer because we’re day to day, we typically use a soft shampoo and warm water to get the fingerprints off it. We use the cheap hotel shampoo because it’s mainly water and detergents. But it’s great for the Cup because it gets the fingerprints off. We couldn’t use silver cleaner every day. It would probably take away the engraving on it. Twice a year, that gets done professionally, but when we’re on the road, it’s basically just hotel shampoo and warm water and a soft cloth.
Are you wearing the white gloves just so you don’t get fingerprints on the Cup? And then when you’re not in public, maybe you can handle it without the gloves?
It’s funny, in a way, because we work in a museum here. At an art gallery or a rock museum, they all wear white gloves because basically you don’t want to get the oils on your fingertips on the artifacts. We started wearing the white gloves about 20 years ago now, kind of out of respect, and it’s just become a status thing. Basically any curatorial staff in any museum anywhere wears white gloves.
We have hundreds of pairs here at the museum. But people freak out when they see the guy put white gloves on. It’s very bizarre because people want to get pictures with the Cup and they want us to have the white gloves on.
Craig Cambell (left) and Pritchard with the Cup.
How many pairs of gloves do you have?
You should be asking my wife on this one because I’ve kept every pair at home. I don’t know why I started—maybe because I work in a museum and you just kinda collect things—but now I can’t stop. I have no room for my socks. Every time we’re out on the road, I have at least half a dozen pairs with me.
Are they made of something special?
They’re just cotton archival gloves. But people want to buy them off of me. It’s crazy.
They’ve touched the Cup! I totally get it. Have any Cup-related mishaps happened on your watch?
I guess when you and I are 121 years old, we'll have some dings and dents on us. The same thing happens to the Stanley Cup—unfortunately, sometimes things happen.
How do you keep the Cup safe during public appearances?
We are usually within 10 to 15 feet of the Cup at all times. When it's on display, we have extra security and stations for crowd control.
You obviously spend a lot of time with the Cup, and I’m sure you spend a lot of time just looking at it. Do you have a favorite fact about the Cup or a favorite detail about it?
People come up and say “Where does this thing say ‘Stanley Cup?’” It doesn’t, because that’s not its name. It’s the Dominion Hockey Challenge Bowl. It was donated by Lord Stanley of Preston, so it has just become the Stanley Cup. It's a nickname.
The bowl itself holds 14 twelve-ounce bottles of beer. The players say “Can I drink out of it?” I say sure. “Well I’m gonna pour some beers in it.” “Well you need 14 of 'em.” And they go to drink out of it and it comes out like Niagara Falls.
The most amazing thing of all is when the guys win it and they fill it up with champagne, and when the first guy drinks out of it, and he gets to the bottom of the bowl and he sees the names in the inside of the bowl—I think that’s when reality sets in for the guy—that “Holy crap. My name is going on this and here’s a guy from 1907 on there already.” That’s what really brings it all into reality and perspective for these guys when they see the names of the Montreal Wanderers on the inside of the bowl.
Do you have a personal favorite thing you've done with the Cup?
I think it's great when the winners bring it home to their old coaches and teachers and knock on their door with the Cup and say, "Hi, do you remember me? I would like to say thanks for your help and get a photo please.” It is so special and means so much.
There’s no other trophy like the Stanley Cup, period—and especially in that each team member gets to have a day with this very special object that has its very own chaperone. Have you ever heard from other officials from the NFL or the NBA saying, “This is insane, you guys are crazy”?
First of all, [other sports leagues] make a new trophy every year. The Pittsburgh Steelers win the Super Bowl, and the next year, Tiffany’s is making a new Super Bowl [trophy] that a new team is winning. So it’s a totally different tradition than in hockey. However, when some NBA and some NFL players have seen the Cup, they literally freaked out. “Look at our Super Bowl [trophy]—you can’t even drink out of it. It’s just there! It’s just a football.”
I’m not taking away from any other sport, [but] hockey has done this great tradition. You get it for a day and that’s it. I think more than anything, hockey has this team atmosphere—that it’s not about you, it’s about the team. I think the whole team getting it, I think that’s the whole story right there.
Mike Bolt (left) and Pritchard with the Cup.
What's the biggest challenge of being a Cup keeper?
All of us wish that we had won it, but that didn’t work out. I guess this is the next best thing to it. In saying that, at the end of one Stanley Cup party, the winner goes to bed while we go on to the next party, so sleep and time management are very important. However, the most important thing is making sure the winner enjoys his time with the Cup.
All images courtesy of the Hockey Hall of Fame.