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Mr. Stanley Comes to Door County

One of sports’ great traditions came to northern Door County Aug. 18 when Pittsburgh Penguins left-winger Ruslan Fedotenko brought the Stanley Cup trophy to the peninsula.

I caught up with Lord Stanley’s Cup behind The Waterfront restaurant in Sister Bay, and when I posted a few photos on Facebook, the comments from my far-flung friends were all pretty much along the lines of, “What the heck is the Stanley Cup doing in Door County?”

A good question, considering Wisconsin has no National Hockey League (NHL) team, Fedotenko is Russian, and that hockey lags a bit behind sports like cherry pit spitting and cow-tipping in Door County. Here’s the deal on the connection. Fedotenko’s wife is from Iowa, and her family has long vacationed in Door County. The couple owns a condo in Sister Bay now and visit frequently.

As for the cup, the tradition behind the trophy hockey awards to its champion each year is unlike any other in sports. Other leagues mint a new trophy each year, engraving the name of that year’s champion on it and giving it to that team to keep. The NHL, however, has one trophy, handed down from champion to champion. The names of every player, coach, and owner of the championship team is engraved on the cup each year, which is then relinquished when a new champion is crowned.

In an odd twist, each of the people whose names are on the cup get the cup for a day in the offseason, taking it wherever they want to go, and doing with it pretty much whatever they wish. Some drink whiskey out of it, some take it swimming, some eat cereal. So when the Penguins won the title in June, Fedotenko decided to take it on a tour of Door County.

He ate ice cream out of it at Wilson’s, took it on a go-kart ride at Johnson’s Park, and drank margaritas from it at The Waterfront, showing it off to awed locals and visitors everywhere he went.

A close look at the Stanley Cup reveals not a shimmering trophy that belongs under glass, but a battered and experienced friend with the character and soul of an aging tavern. Hockey’s greatest have loved this cup, slept with it, kissed it, and lived for it. The tradition of the sport is not bequeathed upon it by a jeweler, but instead lives inside it, carried on by the scratches, dents and chips it proudly displays. One can only imagine the stories the cup could tell.

Hockey’s greatest teams are engraved. It’s greatest names in small print hidden amongst hundreds of others. On the bowl itself is written “Challenge Cup,” as it was originally named the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup after Lord Frederick Stanley of Canada fell in love with the game and bought a decorative bowl to award to the annual amateur hockey champion of Canada in 1893.

Near the base is a sad reminder of the sport’s business side. “2004-05, Season Not Played.” An ode to the year a labor dispute canceled the season and no champion was crowned. Hockey devotees actually sued for the right to take the Challenge Cup back, hoping to hold an amateur tournament to award it to those who wished to play.

As I circled the cup, thinking of the names and stories, I watched fans step up to have their photo taken as they touched the cup. I know NHL players have a superstition. They won’t touch it before they win it, and as an average guy and marginal hockey fan, I didn’t think I should. I stood back in awe and watched Mr. Fedotenko dutifully sign autographs and pose for photos, never letting his smile fade.

Then I caved. When would I have a chance to touch a professional sports trophy again? Never? And it’s not like I was going to do any damage to my chances of winning the cup one day. So I hopped in, leaned over, and gently leaned on the 35-pound trophy that has been beaten, lost in airports, and defiled in all manner of ways. Lord Stanley’s Cup did not waver, and I only hope I didn’t ruin my chances of a broomball championship one day.

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