Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Big Shiny

It’s never good to generalize about human nature, but if I was going to, I would say that human beings are attracted to shiny things. People will do strange things for glittery objects. They say the indigenes sold Manhattan Island for glass beads. 19th century teenagers went to Alaska and froze their digits off for gold. Marilyn Monroe made a career out of an unabashed willingness to exchange sex for jewelry. Children collect geodes and quartz pebbles, and monarchs in virtually every society from time immemorial have asserted power by covering themselves as completely as possible in whatever sparkly objects were available. Trophies are the ultimate in shiny trinkets that people will do absurd things for. Virtually any prize for anything, be it the Oscars or the Olympics or a state fair cabbage-growing competition, will be made out of a reflective metal polished to mirror-sheen (or possibly plastic painted to a fair approximation, in the last case).

The conventional explanation for trophies is that they represent winning. A trophy is the ultimate MacGuffin; totally pointless intrinsically, it only has value because of the competition to acquire it. In a lot of circumstances, this is fairly accurate- to recall the original usage of the term, in most suspense/thriller/heist movies, it doesn’t actually matter what the characters are after, be it money or the NOC list or some mysterious vial. All that matters is what they will and won’t do for it. But curiously enough, even in the cases where it matters least what the prize at the end actually is, there’s still a distinct preference for shiny objects (diamonds), and in some cases, pure unadulterated shine (Pulp Fiction).

The Stanley Cup is a very shiny object.

It must be pointed out that, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, as a thing, the Stanley Cup is ugly. The Cup itself is a piece of late-Victorian dinnerware, the sort of thing one might find at a flea market in some small British village. Many of its cousins produced at the same time in the same place are probably sitting in rummage sales and rural antique shops right this second. If it were not The Stanley Cup, it would seem more appropriate to the mantle of some elderly relative rather than a sporting event. Its trophy-appeal (i.e. shiny-quotient), if not its aesthetic appeal, has been enhanced by perching it atop a series of variously-sized silver tires, as though someone long ago decided that it had to make a concerted effort to out-shiny everything else in the world, the bling to end all bling.

But one cannot judge the Stanley Cup on the scale of other trophies, in fact, one cannot judge it on the scale of any other shiny thing in the modern world. The Stanley Cup is, in fact, a powerful object in its own right, resembling a religious artifact more than a trophy. It is no MacGuffin, it’s the Holy Grail of the hockey world, in a way that is more truth than metaphor. Like a religious artifact, its perfect individuality is emphasized again and again, and like a religious artifact, it is surrounded by a powerful aura of history, superstition, and awe.

It would be a lie to say the Stanley Cup is valued because it represents winning, because really, in hockey, the Cup is much, much more important than winning. The Cup is not the thing you get to signify your triumph- that would be the rings given to players on the winning team- it’s the thing you play to win. It’s the thing that defines winning. No one in the hockey universe could imagine winning the playoffs without the Cup- they’re called the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Stanley Cup Final, the winning team is called the Stanley Cup Champions. You couldn’t even name what winning is in hockey without the Cup, couldn’t even talk about it. If one day the NHL woke up and said, hey, we don’t need this trophy, let’s just call ‘em the NHL Champions and give everyone a big golden puck, that would in fact be one of the signs of the apocalypse, and one feels that all the teams would just shrug their shoulders and go home, because it just wouldn’t be worth it without the Stanley Cup.

They don’t play to win something symbolic, they play for the actual thing, that soup tureen or salad bowl or whatever the hell it was initially conceived as, the Cup itself. To feel it's weight, it's texture, it's shape. To touch it, hold it, and most particularly hoist it- a verb that has nearly died in colloquial English usage. Most people go their whole lives without ever 'hoisting' anything, we ordinary folk just 'lift' or 'raise' things. But there is no other verb commonly used to describe what the players of the winning team will do to the Cup on the evening of their victory, a unique vocabulary for a unique experience.

The power of the Stanley Cup is, partly, because it is a singularity. Technically, of course, there are two- the first bowl is locked away in an airtight tomb in the Hockey Hall of Fame, too fragile now to endure the myriad abuses of long travels and the coarse affections of hockey players. But somehow, this doesn’t detract from the aura of the surrogate Cup that still circulates in the world. It’s a rare instance of transferable authenticity, for no one doubts that the thing that will be given to the League’s only winning team in a couple of weeks is the original, real Stanley Cup. Its singularity, uniqueness is not a fact but an article of faith, it is a thing powerful enough to overcome its own duality.

People treat the Stanley Cup with reverence. Even people who aren’t hockey fans, who would have trouble naming even one current NHL team or player, know and recognize the Cup. It attracts attention and fascination wherever it goes. For people who know and love hockey, mostly in North America, but even across the oceans, its status equals or exceeds that of all other historical objects. Its image is replicated over and over again for our benefit, on T-shirts, posters, on television, miniatures of plastic or rubber. Its history itself is a matter of public devotion, the stories in which it features are the most repeated and beloved in the entire hockey world- not just the stories of those who’ve claimed it, but pure stories about its own adventures and misadventures.

The Stanley Cup and its superstitions, in part, help define the division between players and non-players. Players do not touch the cup if they haven’t won it, and indeed many appear to be uncomfortable even standing in its presence before it’s truly theirs. Those who still aspire to it tend to speak of it in formal, careful tones, as if fearful that taking its name in vain might offend the hockey gods. But non-players who have no hope of ever earning the Cup are free to touch if the opportunity arises, and many do, without feeling any shame at violating a ritual taboo. It is only players who have not yet earned it who must treat it with this distanced veneration.

But for players the obligations and rituals shift instantly and dramatically when the Cup is won. Before winning it, a player is supposed to treat it with awe and deference, but once he has earned it, he is expected to treat it in almost the opposite manner. Players who have won the Cup do not treat it as a fragile and sacred thing, but intimately, like a piece of their equipment or an ordinary household object. For the brief moment it is theirs, it is truly and completely theirs, and they act accordingly. They will throw it around, swing it, dance with it, sleep with it, eat and drink out of it, and probably a good many more things stranger than those of us in the outside world will ever know. In its life the Cup has endured a good deal of battering and damage from those who’ve won it, and indeed this too is fitting, for nothing involved with hockey should escape frequent and ignominious injury.

Like any holy relic, the Stanley Cup has keepers, assigned caretakers who follow it everywhere. They look like FBI archivists, all dark suits and white cotton gloves, but the nature of their job is ambiguous, for- in the hands of the winning team anyway- there are theoretically few restrictions on what can be done with the Cup, and it’s likely that their role is mostly to stand by and watch while the Cup is abused in various ways. Fortunately, the abuse itself is part of the ritual, and it may be that it is one of the few sacred objects in the world that no action can profane or defile (although I’m sure no few drunken defensemen have tried over the years).

The Cup was not made to be a cult object, it came to this fate and this role accidentally. That old colonial official, who became so entranced with this odd local sport in his assigned post, bought a rather ordinary object from home simply so that the winners of an annual competition could have something to represent their triumph- a pure MacGuffin and nothing more. I sometimes wonder if he could have imagined in all his woolen, sepia-toned dreams what a powerful phenomenon he was beginning, that his name would eventually be transferred almost completely to this then-small, sparkly object, and he himself nearly forgotten, except for vague, Promethean sort of role, the giver of the Big Shiny.

Lots of later people have tried to follow Lord Stanley’s example, and gain immortality by giving hockey assorted decorative dishes. Perhaps because of the venerated status of the Cup, hockey has quite the fetish for shiny trinkets. It is the most trophy-ridden of sports- you can’t hardly do anything well in hockey without somebody somewhere trying to give you a sparkly bowl, vase, pillar, plaque, or medal for it, and they seem to add new ones at regular intervals. Before I die, I fully expect to see some kind of Golden Spittoon given out annually for best achievement in expectoration. But all these other shinies are just pale imitations of the Big Shiny, and while players are no doubt happy to receive them, I doubt anybody stays up nights lusting and longing for them. They’re just ordinary things, matter without spirit.

The Stanley Cup is the memory of hockey. It is something essential about the sport, something that has survived through all the many years and all the many changes, something that is capable of transcending the nuts and bolts of any given season. It is whatever abides that is Hockey Itself. Where the Cup is concerned, all of the squabbles over rules and contracts and trades seem small and foolish- moneychangers in the Temple, counting out coins under the eaves of transcendence.

One hopes that the Stanley Cup is haunted, if such things are truly possible, that it carries with it not just the names of the men who’ve won it, but something of what they were, the best of who they were. It’s not just the essence of winning in hockey that it holds, it’s joy incarnate, the happiest moments of hundreds of lives wholly given to the sport, shaped into one very big, very shiny, and luminously lovely... salad bowl.


Isabella said...

Great post :)

One more thing to add to the list: urinate in it. I'm serious, and I wish I wasn't, though it was a player's child and not a player himself... that we know of.

Ugh. Brodeur fed his kids from that cup.

Teebz said...

I'm not sure if you're tongue-in-cheek-ing this, but it is hockey's Holy Grail. The article, itself, is excellent and well-written, though.

That being said, it has been found at the bottom of Patrick Roy's pool. I'm not sure I'd put the most honoured of sports' trophies at the bottom of anyone's pool.

E said...

isabella- i'm assuming (hoping?) they disinfect the cup at regular intervals, because- professional hockey players being what they are- i'm sure it's come in repeated contact with just about every possible bodily fluid.

teebz- honestly, i rarely know whether i'm being tongue-in-cheek or not, but the post was meant sincerely. and i like the pool story, it's sort of representative of the mystique of the thing, that it's the holy grail, and yet... well, if you've earned it, and you want to see if it floats, you can just go ahead and find out. that's awesome, more so than if everyone just kept it in a velvet box and only took it out for photo ops.

alice said...

I thought it was Mario Lemieux's pool.

The Hockey Hall of Fame has a regular summer feature on the travels of the Cup:

When you run out of books to read, browsing through this archive might be fun.

Another aspect of the Cup, that you'll see in a few weeks, is the ceremony with which it's presented. After a bunch of jubilant, sweaty men have finished hugging each other and shaking hands with another bunch of dejected, sweaty men, the whole mood of the arena changes. Red carpet is laid down, and the cup is carried onto the ice by two white-gloved keepers. There's a lot the NHL sucks at, but their approach to on-ice ceremony is inspired. And it's influenced other sports as well. Baseball, football, and basketball tropies used to be presented in locker rooms. But, in the last decade or so, they've all gone to on-field or on-court presentations.

And, to add to your inventory of bling, consider the silver or crystal hockey sticks that most teams present to players who have scored milestone goals, usually their 500th or 600th.

Julian said...

If I ever write a book on the Stanley Cup, I'm gonna have you write the introduction.

That just may overshadow the rest of the book though, so maybe it's not such a good idea.

Great post E.

Doogie said...

I thought it was Mario Lemieux's pool.

Both, actually.

The odd dichotomy of reverence and irreverence is never something I've thought much about. It just felt like a natural part of the whole thing that, on the one hand, players would barely make eye contact if they hadn't won, yet once they had, they could take it to strip clubs, ditch it on the curb, or leave it at a photographer's for his wife to use as a planter. (Don't get me started on parading it out for all manner of pre-game ceremonies since the lockout. Sheesh.)

And there's actually three, if you really want to get technical. The original, in a Hall of Fame display to the side of the main one (which also has the old rings), the official one, with a HHoF seal on the bottom, that's presented to the players, and a duplicate (without the mistaken engravings -- there's another one) that sits in the HHoF when the official one is gallivanting about.

E said...

alice- the more pools, the better, i guess?

julian- oh no, i'll write the introduction such that it just makes the rest of the book look better. trust me.

doogie- i've been really trying, and i cannot think of any other object that gets treated in the same mixed up way. none, in any other part of the world, in any other facet of life. it's actually a bit disturbing.

and yeah, i knew about the 3rd cup, but i wasn't sure if i should count it, because it really is just a replica- i mean, it's never been presented to anyone as the actual stanley cup, has it? whereas both of the other two have.

Zwirb said...

For the archive: