A KISS TO BUILD A DREAM ON
The Stanley Cup is enshrined beneath a stained glass dome that is not merely evocative of a church—it is one. Signs in French and English welcome you to the cathedral, and backlit icons of hockey deities line the walls. It might seem contrite to someone who does not buy into the sport-as-religion trope, but lucky for me, I went to the Hockey Hall of Fame with Canadians.
We happened upon hockey’s holiest relic on a rare day when the shrine was empty. Despite a level of journalistic detachment I police with care, my stomach dropped as the glimmer of silver turned into the most unmistakable silhouette in sports. Short of lifting the Stanley Cup—a privilege reserved for those who have won it—you can worship it in virtually any manner you desire. And believe me, those limits were tested.
My first instinct was to rest my cheek against the cold silver, arms around the base as I might embrace a friend. I felt as if no formalities of introduction were necessary, and arguably, they weren’t—despite the fact that the two of us have never met.
I had no choice but to leave a kiss in six different places, on the engravings of six winning teams that were special to me for a garden variety of reasons—some legitimate, others not. I thought this was the point when the guard would stop me, but she seemed utterly unfazed. I suspect that this woman has seen it all.
Ken Dryden described his experience of winning a Stanley Cup in this way:
In destiny and in romance there is no room for life. Painted as they are with broad brush strokes, vivid and lush, they find shape and pattern only with distance. The person who lives them is too close. He feels sweat as well as triumph. He understands what others see, but feels none of it himself. In the 1971 playoffs, as a twenty-three year old law student with only six NHL games behind me, I led an underdog team to a Stanley Cup. Romance? Destiny? Not to me, though at times I’ve tried to make it so.
The funny thing about hockey, unlike so many other professional sports, is that it holds us close. It does not rely on “the chase” to stoke the coals of passion. We are invited into unprecedented proximity with its gods and its symbols, a policy that allows us to rationalize the fact that the Stanley Cup is displayed with religious pomp comparable to The Vatican.
New Lombardi and Commissioner’s Trophies are made every year for NFL and MLB champions. They are displayed for a while, then retired—losing their significance the moment a new emperor is coronated. Could there be any more potent metaphor for hockey’s relationship with its fans than the fact that any one of us can kiss the same Stanley Cup that every team has lifted? I pressed my forehead against Philadelphia 1975 and conjured each captain whose smile had lodged itself in my consciousness—a faculty that seems to have limited capacity for everything else, and yet a boundless well for hockey. I thought about Gretzky and Howe. I thought about the New York Post cover that boasted “BLESS THIS MESS.” I thought about Vladimir Konstantinov in his wheelchair and Bobby Orr’s leap and Laila Anderson’s smile. And my chest tightened when I dreamt of Ken Dryden lifting the Cup for the last time, his retirement retold in The Game with undisguised grit, emblazoning moments I was not even alive for upon my memory.
I waited thirty years to hold that trophy close. I know that some have waited even longer, while others who dedicated their lives to the ice were never bestowed the privilege of a lift. And as much as I wished I could stay there forever, running my fingers across names that thrill me even to imagine, I recalled a wonderful fact: I could do this again, whenever I wanted.
The Stanley Cup is always there—in fact, its constant and steady presence is mandated. Much like the sport itself provides an alternate universe that I can access any time I desire, its enduring symbol of triumph waits, unassumingly and without prejudice, to be adored.
So, to the man who will kiss the Stanley Cup a mere nine months from now: I am already in awe of you. Lift it higher than you envisioned you would when you were ten years old. Cry into its seams with silent gratitude for every coach who believed in you and every opponent who did not. Drink champagne from the rim and claim it was the sweetest you have ever tasted.
But be careful.
In the same way that a chalice is simply a piece of gold until the congregation says otherwise, it is we—the faithful—who assign meaning to it all. Our adoration is the equal and opposite force to your velocity.
Hockey’s ultimate prize may sit firmly, and deservingly, in your hands tonight…but its beloved symbol, much like its soul, will always belong to all of us.
* A few logistical notes about the Stanley Cup: there are, in fact, three of them — the original (in the HHOF vault), the permanent cup and the presentation cup (this is arguably the holiest, and the one you will most likely visit…it goes on the ice). The tiers are removed and archived when full, hence you will not find every team engraved, and the Cup will never change in size. The next tier will be removed in 2030.