NHL Playoffs: The Legend of Lord Stanley

Each year, more than 600 NHL skaters on 30 different franchises across the country do battle in the hopes of victory, making hockey history, and with their cross-hairs aimed at the most iconic trophy in all of sports: the Stanley Cup.  In baseball, the postseason isn’t called the “Commissioner’s Trophy Playoffs”, nor is the NFL’s postseason called the “Lombardi Trophy Playoffs”, however, in the NHL, the ultimate prize that is up for grabs is made perfectly clear, as teams prepare for the Stanley Cup Playoffs every spring.

Today, Lord Stanley’s Cup stands at almost three feet tall, and weighs close to 35 pounds; however, when lifted above one’s head in celebration after winning it all, it’s just as believable that the Stanley Cup, at that moment, is nearly weightless.

But just who was this Lord Stanley? And how did his moniker come to be attached to the most fabled and recognizable trophy in all of American sports?

Believe it or not, the man that history would come to know as Lord Stanley was actually…..British.  It’s true, very rarely do people think of Great Britain when they think of hockey, but that is merely one part of the legend that has come to surround Lord Stanley and his illustrious trophy that has become hockey’s Holy Grail.

In January of 1841, Frederick Arthur Stanley was born in the city of London, the son of a 3-time Prime Minister of England.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Stanley opted for a political career and even served as a Member of Parliament for more than two decades from 1865 to 1886.  Then, after his career in Parliament ended, Queen Victoria appointed him as the sixth Governor-General of Canada in 1888.  (On a side note, with that position came one of the most outrageous and awesome job titles ever: the Right Honorable Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, Earl of Derby, Baron Stanley of Preston, in the County of Lancaster, in the peerage of Great Britain, Knight Grand Cross of the Most Honorable Order of the Bath—imagine having to write all of that at the end of a letter.)

Shortly after Lord Stanley and his family began living in Ottawa, Stanley’s two sons—Algernon and Arthur—helped to form a hockey club called the Rideau Rebels.  Upon seeing how rampant ice hockey was spreading through his Canadian community, Stanley wrote a letter in 1892 to the Ottawa Athletic Association that called for a “challenge cup” that would be awarded to the top, local hockey club each year—a letter that would also change the history of ice hockey in North America forever.

Stanley’s idea for a “challenge cup” was emphatically received, was called the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup in the beginning, and the originally trophy was bought for only 10 guineas (less than $50 in today’s money); Stanley insisted that the Cup remain an annual award for the top team and not the property of any one hockey club, and, eventually, the trophy came to be called the Stanley Cup.

In 1893, after the death of his brother, Lord Stanley retired his post as Governor-General in Ottawa and returned to England; however, in that same year, although the trophy’s namesake wasn’t there to see it, the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association became the first winners of Lord Stanley’s Cup—foreshadowing Montreal’s eventual dominance in the NHL.  In 1910, it was decided that the Stanley Cup would be awarded solely to professional hockey teams and, after the creation of the NHL in 1917 and the dismantling of the Pacific Coast Hockey League in 1926, the Stanley Cup became the prize given annually to the Champions of the NHL.

Although Lord Stanley was never able to personally witness a championship hockey contest, nor the trophy that bears his name ever awarded to a winning team, his contributions to the sport of hockey were such that Frederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, was one of the first men ever to be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto—as a builder of the sport—in 1945.

Had England’s Queen Victoria not appointed Frederick Stanley as the Governor-General of Canada more than 100 years ago, the sport of hockey may not have progressed in the way that it did, and the NHL may have never come to know, or play for, the most iconic trophy in all of sports: the Stanley Cup.

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