WHITEFISH – The line snaked out the door of the Stumptown Ice Den, down the sidewalk and into the parking lot. Despite the Tuesday morning heat, many of those waiting wore the black jersey of the Boston Bruins, the team that won the National Hockey League championship in a seven-game June series over the Vancouver Canucks. And inside the rink was the trophy the Boston franchise had earned possession of, for 100 days: the Stanley Cup.
Bruins Assistant Coach Doug Houda, who has a house on Whitefish Lake, brought the Cup for a public viewing last week in what has become an NHL tradition, where every member of the winning franchise may retain it for a day.
Unlike other major American sports, NHL champions don’t receive their own trophy; they merely earn the right to hoist the Stanley Cup over their heads for a relatively short period of time. It is this tradition, along with the inscription of every winning team member’s name on its chalice, that have helped make the Stanley Cup the most iconic and historic trophy in North American sports.
This status was underscored by the hundreds in Whitefish who turned out, and waited in line, just to stand in its presence and have their photograph taken alongside it.
Scott Newlon, of Kalispell, describes himself as a “life-long” Bruins fan who has been following Boston’s fortunes for decades stretching back to Bobby Orr’s legendary championship-winning overtime goal in 1970. Those victories and defeats, and the fickle nature in which the Stanley Cup seems to choose who gets it, are part of what give hockey’s highest trophy its allure.
“What’s the World Series trophy look like?” Newlon said. “Even people who aren’t hockey fans know what the Stanley Cup looks like.”
Newlon said his daughter, upon touching the Stanley Cup, noted to her father that it was the very same trophy held by Orr, Wayne Gretzky and other hockey stars.
“This whole tradition, when they show it among the fans, it makes the fans part of the team,” Newlon said. “This scene is being repeated over and over again all over America this summer.”
The Stanley Cup means just as much to Canadians like Edward Gatzky, who drove down from Lethbridge with his girlfriend the previous night. With wraparound sunglasses, long blond hair and broad shoulders, Gatzky towered over the rest of the line. A professional wrestler who goes by the moniker, “Gothic Knight,” Gatzky grew up in the Crowsnest Pass area with Houda, who also hails from southern Alberta.
“I’m here to celebrate the Cup as a Bruin and to congratulate a childhood friend,” Gatzky said. “I’m so proud of Doug and his accomplishments, words just don’t do it justice.”
Gatzky has been a Bruins fan since the age of 4, and demanded congratulations from this reporter before granting an interview, noting the last time the Bruins won the Stanley Cup was 1972.
“After 39 years I think a good congratulations is in order,” he added.
Behind him, Bob Padgham stood quietly, wearing a blue Canucks cap. Born and raised in Vancouver, Padgham was disappointed by the outcome of the series, but he wasn’t about to let it stop him from seeing the Stanley Cup.
“Hopefully I’ll be lining up to see the Cup with my Vancouver jersey on next year,” he said.
From there, the line passed through the Stumptown lobby and into the rink, where the Stanley Cup waited on a table draped in black. Upon seeing the Cup, onlookers grew so quiet the overhead lights buzzed audibly. Kids ran their hands along its sides, where the names of former champions were etched, and one man asked to be photographed while kissing it.
Houda, looking relaxed, was shaking hands and gently encouraging the line to move along. Later in the day, he planned to cruise around the waters of Whitefish with the Cup along for the ride.
“I’ve always wanted to take it out on the lake,” Houda said. “I’m just a lake person.”
Standing off to the side was Walt Neubrand, who accompanies the Stanley Cup for the Hockey Hall of Fame when it’s making the rounds of a championship team.
“People like to call us ‘Keepers of the Cup,’ but I think that’s too ‘Dungeons & Dragons,’” Neubrand said. “Just call us Cup guards.”
Neubrand works for Phil Pritchard, a curator at the Hall of Fame in Toronto well known for his role as the white-gloved presenter of the Stanley Cup to new NHL champions. But during the summer, when the trophy travels with teams, Neubrand is there with it: at backyard parties, public events and lugging it on and off the baggage carousel of the airport, where the 119-year-old Cup is checked, in a nondescript case, alongside the golf bags and skis of other travelers.
“Afterward you just clean it,” Neubrand said. “You always want to display it when it’s looking respectful.”
While talking, Neubrand keeps an eye on the Cup.
“This guy might lift it; you can tell by the way he’s gripping it,” he said, but the fan left the trophy on the table. “So far, so good, eh?”
In his 14 years working for the Hockey Hall of Fame, Neubrand has witnessed a range of reactions to the presence of the Stanley Cup: “I’ve seen people cry; I’ve seen people bow down to it.”
The hockey players who have won it, he added, react similarly: “They’re like the fans too, but they’re a little bit more subtle about it.”
Neubrand has also witnessed some unusual reactions by fans to the Cup. In Dallas, he saw a couple prop a stuffed sheep on one side of the trophy, and a stuffed rabbit on the other. Then, indecisively, switched their positions.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you put them in the bowl so they’re together?’” Neubrand recalled. “They said, ‘We can’t do that, they’re fighting.’”
In another city, someone brought an empty birdcage and set it beside the Stanley Cup for a photo. The man told Neubrand he would have liked to bring his bird, but the crowds and shiny trophy would have frightened it.
“He said, ‘At least I got the birdcage,’” Neubrand recounted, shaking his head, then added, “It’s a good people-watching job, that’s for sure.”
At that moment, Gatzky entered the rink, and he and Houda shook hands warmly, clapping each other on the shoulder and talking animatedly. Houda walked the wrestler over to the table and, a distinction not granted anyone else present, urged Gatzky to pick the trophy up. Gatzky gently grasped the rim of the Cup and the base, and tilted it, feeling its heft.
“Lift it up!” someone in the crowd shouted, but Gatzky declined.
Neubrand, watching him, nodded approvingly.
“It’s kind of frowned upon to lift it over your head if you haven’t won it officially,” he said.
Gatzky, holding the Stanley Cup at chest height, looked at the camera and beamed.
Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.
Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.