A History of the Stanley Cup

Stanley Cup

The Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup — now the Stanley Cup — was once the top prize for Canadian amateur hockey teams. The idea was developed by Frederick Arthur Stanley (Lord Stanley of Preston), Governor-General of Canada, who became an avid ice hockey fan after watching the Montreal Victorias play the Montreal Hockey Club during the city’s Winter Carnival in 1889.

Stanley’s original intention was awarding the trophy cup annually to the top amateur hockey team in Canada. Now, more than a century later, the trophy bears his name and has become one of the most coveted prizes in all of professional sports. 

Dominion Hockey Challenge

The original Stanley Cup was a party punch-sized bowl made of silver, about 7 inches tall and 11 inches in diameter. It was donated to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association by Lord Stanley in 1892, who purchased it from a London silversmith for 10 guineas (about $48).

While Stanley never played hockey himself, the sport became an important part of his family life starting in the late 1800s. Sons Arthur and Algernon played and later formed their own club team, the Ottawa Rideau Hall Rebels. Daughter Isobel was playing in a women’s hockey group by 1899, eventually becoming a hockey pioneer — the National Women’s Hockey League championship trophy is called the Isobel Cup, in recognition of her contributions to the sport. Stanley’s children are cited as instrumental in his decision to donate the silver challenge cup.

The ultimate trophy winner was decided by a challenge game, the rules for which were issued by trustees John Sweetland and Philip D. Ross (appointed by Stanley). The challenge cup trophy was automatically awarded to whichever team finished in first place at the end of the regular season. To take the title, other teams could challenge the league winner for the cup.

The Montreal Hockey Club (the team associated with the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association) was the first recipient of the Stanley Cup, after defeating the Ottawa Hockey Club in 1893 during games of the Amateur Hockey Association of Canada.

For the next decade, it remained a championship trophy for amateur teams. That changed around 1907 with the rise of professional teams, who were looking for a chance to earn the coveted Stanley Cup. 

Professionals Seek the Cup

Ice hockey was quickly gaining popularity around the turn of the 20th century, bringing with it an increase in players and teams. The prestige of winning the Stanley Cup was growing fast in both countries, prompting amateur clubs like the Eastern Canada Amateur Hockey Association to start allowing in professional players to boost team rosters.

By 1904, the first fully professional ice hockey organization — the International Professional Hockey League — was formed in the U.S., followed in 1905 by the establishment of the Manitoba Professional Hockey League, Canada’s first pro league. By 1910, the National Hockey Association (NHA) was established in Montreal with a number of new teams, and the Stanley Cup became the championship trophy strictly for professional players.

The Canada-exclusive NHA was re-formed almost a decade later to include U.S. teams, as the National Hockey League (NHL) we know today. Since 1926, competition for the Stanley Cup has been controlled solely by the NHL.

How Many Stanley Cups Are There?

There is more than one Stanley Cup; in fact, there are three, one of which is passed on to the next championship team. Unlike in other professional sports, a new championship trophy isn’t made every year. Instead, the name of every championship-winning player in a season is engraved on it. Given space constraints, when a new team is crowned, the oldest engraved band is removed and permanently preserved at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada; a new band featuring the current champs is added to the bottom.

The original Stanley Cup is permanently on display in the Hockey Hall of Fame, as it eventually became too brittle to give to championship teams every year. A “Presentation Cup” was created, the top of which is a replica of the original cup. This is the trophy presented to the winning team at the end of the championship game each season.

A third Stanley Cup was created in 1993 as an exact replica of the Presentation Cup. This third one is what’s passed around among the championship team — each member of that team gets one day with the Stanley Cup in the offseason. Some have held parades in their hometowns to show it off. Others have simply spent a fun day with the trophy in tow.

Interesting Stanley Cup Facts

  • An exact replica of the first Stanley Cup sits on top of today’s trophy, which stands 35 inches tall and weighs about 34 pounds.
  • The Stanley Cup can hold 14 cans of beer.
  • Each player on the championship-winning team gets one day with the trophy before it’s returned to the NHL trustees. 
  • Two babies have been baptized in the Stanley Cup. The first was the daughter of the Colorado Avalanche’s Sylvain Lefebvre after the team won the championship in 1996. The other was the son of Josh Archibald of the Pittsburgh Penguins when that team won in 2017.   
  • When on the road, the Stanley Cup is always accompanied by a representative of the Hockey Hall of Fame; that person is known as Keeper of the Cup.
  • There have been numerous typos in team and player names on the Stanley Cup. Because they’re engraved, those errors can never be corrected.  
  • A handful of women have had their names engraved on the Stanley Cup, including Marguerite Norris, who was president of the Detroit Red Wings when they won the championship in 1954-55, and Canadian Sonia Scurfield, who was co-owner of the Calgary Flames when they won in 1988-89.
  • Lord Stanley, originator and benefactor of the Cup, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1945 as an “Honoured Builder.”

Over the past century, the Stanley Cup has become one of the world’s most recognized prizes in professional sports. It even has its own social media accounts — @travelswithstanley on Instagram, which chronicles its travels and time spent with members of whichever championship-winning team currently holds it; and @stanleycup on Twitter. But despite its evolution and shift from the amateur arena to the pros, the Stanley Cup competition continues to celebrate hockey’s best of the best, just as Lord Stanley had intended.