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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Only Time You'll See the Stanley Cup in Cincinnati



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- Fans pose with the Stanley Cup, the championship trophy of the National Hockey League.

The Stanley Cup is one of the most revered and hallowed trophies in all of professional sports. Its roots trace back to 1892 and each spring it's awarded to the champions of the National Hockey League. There's only one occasion where you'll catch it in Cincinnati, a city without an NHL team to win it, but a city that almost had one.



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- The Stanley Cup on display at US Bank Arena on December 21, 2013.

It's a saturday night at the US Bank Arena, an early 70's sports complex on the shores of the Ohio River. The Cincinnati Cyclones are warming up on the ice for a game against the Elmira Jackals. The crowd is ushered through the narrow ticketing area. Around the concourse a line has formed not for beer or popcorn, but a chance to see the Stanley Cup in person. Some brush their hands across the names engraved into the trophy's sides, others kiss it while most pose for photographs. It's their chance to see a piece of history up close - a trophy that has been hoisted and held by legends with names like Gretzky, Messier, Lemieux and Brodeur.

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The trophy's origins date back to 1892 when Lord Stanley of Preston, then Governor General of Canada, began awarding the trophy to the nation's best ice hockey team. Originally the prize appeared only as the "bowl" now seen at the top of the trophy today. Over the years, leagues and their respective teams vying for the cup came and went. When Canada's premiere Western Hockey League folded in 1926, the National Hockey League became the sole remaining "major" league in North America and the only one left competing for the cup. The trophy thus began being awarded to the NHL's champion each season.

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Each season's winning franchise has their name, year of their victory and player's individual names engraved into the rings below the bowl. Over time, as a ring fills up - the older rings are retired and placed in a vault at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto. The hall's vault also holds the original "bowl" that once adorned the top of the trophy.

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- The name of each team and its players are engraved onto the rings of the cup. When a ring fills up, an older one is removed and retired while a new ring is added. Thus, the Cup always stays the same size.

Unlike other major leagues whose championship trophies are duplicated each season and awarded to a winner, the cup "travels" to whomever the most recent winner is. Adding to its uniqueness are several traditions that surround the prize. After being won, the cup is presented on ice by its white glove clad handlers from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Then, each player from the winning team will skate a lap around the ice while hoisting it above their heads typically starting with the team's captain. It's also customary for the winning team to drink champagne from the "bowl" on the top.

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- One of Cincinnati's finest poses with the cup.

Each member of the winning team and their staff also get to spend one full day with the cup to themselves. It's an interesting practice and its taken the cup all over the globe from dinners with the President of the United States to swimming pools and backyard barbecues. It's a tradition unlike anything else in professional sports and was well documented when Tampa Bay won the cup in 2004 by photojournalist Dirk Shadd.

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The cup's visit to US Bank Arena is the Cyclone's promotion of the night, returning for the second year in a row. It joins a schedule of $1 beer nights, military appreciation events and cheap tickets that make minor league hockey appealing to the local fan base and vastly different from what you might find going on at an NHL game. The arena's upper deck is covered by tarps in an attempt to keep the announced 3,485 people in attendance closer and engaged. At intermission, inflatable characters keep young children entertained while split-the-pot tickets are sold. It's an environment that has made the organization successful since its return in 2006.

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- The Cincinnati Cyclones facing off with the Elmira Jackals.

The night that the cup is in Cincinnati though, it's not because the Cyclones have won it. The cup is in Cincinnati on a publicity tour, making its rounds throughout several cities hosting minor league teams while promoting the NHL. Maybe one day in the future, some of the 'clones roster will get to hoist the cup above their heads, but first they'll have to reach the big times. Instead, if the Cyclones have a good season, they'll compete for the Kelly Cup, the trophy awarded to the champions of the East Coast Hockey League: a AA minor league affiliate two steps below the premiere NHL. If they win it, it'll be the team's third championship. Nevertheless, at the end of the game the cup will be placed in its protective case and wheeled away by its escorts to the next city, ending its stay in Cincinnati. The only time you'll see the Stanley Cup in Cincinnati is on displayed diplomatic missions, not when the victors hoist it above their hands or drink champagne from its historic figure. No, that requires an NHL team and this city doesn't have one of those.

But it almost did...

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- Dennis Sobchuk was a popular figure of the Cincinnati Stingers franchise. Image via: Hockey Hall of Fame

Cincinnati was no stranger to hockey in the early 70's. The city had hosted a share of successful minor league teams at the historic Cincinnati Gardens which were then occupied by the American Hockey League's Cincinnati Swords, playing one rung below the NHL. One of the Swords' minority owners named Bill Dewitt Jr. partnered with local lawyer Brian Heekin to bring the mother league to town. The two began pursuing an NHL franchise and partnered with the city to work out an agreement for a publicly financed arena to house their would be expansion team. Ultimately, the NHL declined the pair's bid for an expansion franchise while allegedly agreeing to consider Cincinnati in the future. Undeterred, Dewitt and Heekin formulated a new plan. While the city was no longer interested in financing a new arena, the duo had brought together plans for a privately financed facility and a major league tenant.

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- The Riverfront Coliseum as seen in the early 70's. The former home of the Stingers, the building is now known as US Bank Arena and home to the Cincinnati Cyclones.
The NHL had passed on Cincinnati, but the NHL wasn't the only major hockey league around at the time. In 1972, an alternative professional hockey league began play after being founded by a group of entrepreneurs. The World Hockey Association was an alternative to the NHL and could be found in many cities that had faced the same frustrations as Cincinnati - snubbed by the NHL's unwillingness to expand. Heekin and Dewitt saw an opportunity and as construction on the Riverfront Coliseum began, the pair announced the WHA's first expansion team, the Cincinnati Stingers, on May 6, 1973. 

The WHA was a bold experiment. It gained legitimacy early on by offering large contracts and stealing away some of the NHL's top talent. Despite the league's successes in tempting away players, it still had its issues. Franchises came and went. They'd fold, relocate or in some cases not even have a venue to play in on certain nights. By the time Cincinnati joined in the league's third season, many of the teams were on shaky financial ground. Heekin and Dewitt though weren't hoping for a long time WHA franchise, they were banking on the idea that the two leagues might eventually merge thus bringing the Stingers into the NHL and bringing Cincinnati its franchise. 
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- "Slapshot," the mascot of the Cincinnati Stingers. Image via: Photobucket


After just two seasons of play in Cincinnati, the first serious merger negotiations between the two rival leagues began. DeWitt teamed up with Hartford Whalers owner Howard Baldwin in leading the talks. Ultimately they were unsuccessful when NHL owners voted against the proposal. The league went on for two more seasons when an agreement with the NHL was reached at the end of the 1978-1979 season.

There's a story I've heard, allegedly from former Stinger's and Xavier University broadcaster Andy "Mac" MacWilliams, about how the Stinger's front office staff were instructed to answer the phones saying: "Cincinnati Stingers, National Hockey League," when anyone called for season tickets. Supposedly the Stingers' staff had been told that Cincinnati and the five other surviving WHA teams would finally get their place in the NHL. However, Dewitt and Heekin elected to take a $1.5 Million buyout from the NHL along with the Birmingham franchise. The WHA's four other teams then merged into the NHL.

The Stingers name lived on at the coliseum as a minor league franchise, but only lasted half a season in the Central Hockey League. Thus, as the Stingers died, so did the dream of a Cincinnati NHL franchise and the notion of winning a Stanley Cup.

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- The Stanley Cup while on display at US Bank Arena.

Today the Riverfront Coliseum is now known as US Bank Arena. The team that plays there isn't in the NHL, but they carry on Cincinnati's proud hockey tradition nonetheless. Even if they're not competing for it, they've still managed to bring the Stanley Cup to Cincinnati and to the arena on the river in some way.

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- US Bank Arena on December 21, 2013.

2 comments:

  1. I remember seeing the Stingers play during the early years! The big name on the squad was a guy by the name of Rick Dudley; I think he even cut a 45 RPM single that made local airwaves!

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  2. I was a swords fan . the rowdiest fans in hockey. We played the game against the other team. Heaven help them. We even crowdfunded traveling fans. Businesses gave paid days off to travelers. We left nothing but debris.

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