The Stanley Cup Trophy Has a Long and Quirky History

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 

Stanley Cup trophy
The Stanley Cup trophy is the oldest trophy a professional sports athlete can compete for in North America. Klara_Steffkova/Shutterstock

Hockey fans worldwide are currently losing their minds because the National Hockey League (NHL) Tampa Bay Lightning and Colorado Avalanche are currently playing the Stanley Cup playoffs, the annual championship tournament that decides the league champion. But most importantly, it decides which team will take possession of the prized trophy — the Stanley Cup. The Cup, revered by both hockey players and fans, has a rich, storied and downright quirky history.

The Cup was purchased for a mere 10 guineas ($50 at the time) in 1892 and donated by Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley (hence the name) who was Governor General of Canada from 1888 to 1893. The first Cup was awarded to the championship hockey club of the Dominion of Canada league during the 1892-1893 season. In 1910, the National Hockey Association took over the Stanley Cup and when the NHL formed in 1926, the Cup moved to the league. Today the Stanley Cup trophy is still the oldest trophy that a professional athlete can compete for in North America.

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We're Gonna Need a Bigger Bowl

In 1926, when the NHL was formed, the trophy was just a bowl measuring 7.3 inches (8.5 centimeters) in height, 11.4 inches (29 centimeters) in diameter. But anyone even vaguely familiar with sports knows that the Cup has morphed into something much bigger now. Today the trophy stands nearly 3 feet tall (0.9 meters) and weighs in at nearly 35 pounds (16 kilograms).

It's massive because, unlike other sports trophies, the Stanley Cup has the names of all the winning players engraved on it each season. At first, the names were engraved on tiered rings at the bottom of the bowl. Later, uniform collars or bands were added to provide additional space. When they ran out of room, the previous rings were retired to make way for the new champions. The original Stanley Cup and retired rings can be viewed in Lord Stanley's Vault in the Esso Great Hall at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

The Cup you see outside the Hall of Fame is a replica of the original consisting of a bowl, three tiered bands, a collar and five uniform bands. It's made of a sturdy silver and nickel alloy, which allows it to take a lot of, well, loving abuse.

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To the Winner, Goes the Cup ... Literally

The team that wins the Stanley Cup playoffs doesn't just get to hoist the Stanley Cup over their heads for a postgame photo op. And they don't just get their names engraved on the trophy for posterity's sake.

Someone somewhere decided it was a good idea to allow every player on the team to take possession of the Stanley Cup trophy — for 24 hours.

And since NHL hockey teams are made up of international players, the Cup has traveled around the world, visiting hometowns throughout North America, Europe and Russia. (The NHL announced that the Stanley Cup would not visit Russia or Belarus this year because of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.)

The Cup has seen it all: the Kentucky Derby, multiple pool parties and parades and it even served as a baptismal font. It also makes goodwill visits on behalf of the NHL, always with a Hockey Hall of Fame "minder" in tow.

But the greatest thing a player can do with the cup is lift it over his head in triumph after a championship win, something Wayne Gretzky managed to do four times in a five-season span between 1984 and 1988 with the Edmonton Oilers.

"If you are lucky enough to get your name on that Stanley Cup that is what is so unique and it is so difficult to win a Stanley Cup," Gretzky told NHL.com in 2017. "As you see today, the parity with these 30 teams [there are currently 32 teams], it is really difficult. So, when you get to lift it, it's really worth it."

Steven Stamkos Stanley Cup trophy
Steven Stamkos of the 2020 and 2021 Stanley Cup Tampa Bay Lightning champions, lifts the Stanley Cup trophy above his head. The Lightning is going for a threepeat against the Colorado Avalanche in the 2022 Stanley Cup Finals.
Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

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