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Hockey’s Holy Grail

For the week of Monday, February 17, 2003

On March 15, 1893, the first Stanley Cup was awarded to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association. A year earlier, Governor-General Lord Stanley had donated a challenge cup to reward the top hockey team in the Dominion of Canada. Although christened the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, from the outset the trophy was soon known as the Stanley Cup.

Lord Stanley of Preston
Lord Stanley of Preston
NA / PA-027167
The first official Stanley Cup Final was  played on March 22, 1894, when Montréal defeated Ottawa 3 to 1. The championship was initially an amateur competition and did not take its present format until the National Hockey League (NHL) was established in 1926. In the 1940s, the number of NHL teams decreased to what later became known as the "Original Six." The league has since greatly expanded and in the last decade teams from New Jersey, Colorado, and Dallas have all had their names engraved on the Cup.

Lord Stanley’s original trophy was a simple silver bowl purchased in British guineas for an amount of less than $50. In the earlier years of the championship, the Cup was routinely misplaced, abused, or forgotten by the rambunctious winning team. It has been used as a champagne glass and a flower pot, has been kicked into Ottawa’s Rideau Canal and left on the side of a road. In 1969, the worn original was retired to the Hockey Hall of Fame and replaced by the modern, ringed Cup. Each of the Cup’s five rings honours 13 years of winning teams. Soon, a sixth ring will be added.

The Stanley Cup championship has always drawn large and enthusiastic crowds. The first game drew the largest audience for a sporting event up to that point in Canadian history. Ironically, Lord Stanley returned to England without having seen a championship game or witnessing the impact he left on Canadian culture. The Stanley Cup popularized the game of hockey across Canada and created a legion of devoted hockey fans. The sport has since been galvanized with such moments as the 1972 Summit Series victory in Russia and various Olympic gold wins.

Frank Mahovlich toasting a Maple Leaf Stanley Cup series victory.
Frank Mahovlich toasting a Maple Leaf
Stanley Cup series victory.

Graphic Artists Collection / Hockey Hall of Fame

The Stanley Cup championship has produced a number of sports heroes within Canada. Two such men, Howie Morenz and Lionel Pretoria “Big Train” Conacher, are designated persons of historic significance. The Montréal Forum, former home to the Montréal Canadiens, is a National Historic Site.

Additional information on the Montréal Forum is available in the archives of This Week in History: Hockey at the Forum.

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