LOS ANGELES/NEWARK, N.J. – As soon as NBC comes back from a commercial break with word that New Jersey's Steve Bernier had been whistled for a game misconduct, giving the Los Angeles Kings an uninterrupted five-minute power play, Phil Pritchard surmises the end is near.
"This could be the game right here," he says, nibbling on a plate of rice and beef in the 11th-story lounge at an LAX hotel.
Behind him, two women are giving Pritchard and his partner Craig Campbell a once over. Their matching outfits – purple shirts, ties and black pants – more than hint that they're together on some sort of official business. The NHL logos on their left cuffs and the tiny hockey players dotting their ties let on that they have something to do with what's on the TV – Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center, where the Kings are one win away from clinching the franchise's first title in its 45-year history.
"How come you guys aren't down there?" one of the women asks.
"We're going shortly," Pritchard replies.
"To present the Cup?"
The Kings have just scored a pair of power-play goals in a span of 102 seconds to give L.A. a 2-0 lead.
"We'll see," Pritchard says.
[Nicholas J. Cotsonika: Kings unleash '45 years of frustration' with unlikely Cup]
By now, the women and another colleague have figured out who's watching the game right in front of them: They're the famed "Keepers of the Cup," the two gentlemen charged with the duty of walking the Stanley Cup onto the ice so that it can be presented to the winning team. For six days and 8,282 miles, Pritchard and Campbell have been criss-crossing North America with the Cup in tow, ready at the wait ever since the Kings took a 3-0 series lead to put them on the verge of winning it all.
They were in Los Angeles last Wednesday when the Devils first staved off elimination by winning Game 4, then ventured to Newark, N.J., for Game 5, another Devils win. Now they've made their way back to Los Angeles for Game 6 and have the Cup ready to go down in Room 349.
"Can I get a picture?" one woman asks. Pritchard, who's become a pseudo-celebrity after nearly 20 years of handing out the Cup, obliges. "My husband is going to freak out," the woman says.
Moments later, Trevor Lewis scores to give the Kings a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 lead.
"You guys better get in the limo," the woman's colleague says.
"We don't get a limo," replies Pritchard as he calls down to the front desk to have the mini-van pulled around.
The Stanley Cup is unlike any other championship trophy in North American sport. There's all sorts of intrigue about where it's been – how it ended up at the bottom of a swimming pool, on the stage of a strip club or filled with dog food. All of it is sensational, and the collection of stories makes a great coffee table book. But none of them have anything to do with why the Stanley Cup is so mystical.
Who's touched it does.
Bobby Orr's touched The Cup. Gordie Howe's touched it. Wayne Gretzky's touched it. Mario Lemieux's touched it.
The Cup is just that – The Cup. There's no The Larry O'Brien Trophy, no The Lombardi Trophy, no The whatever the World Series trophy is called. They're all replicas – shiny and new every year.
There's only two Stanley Cups – the original donated by Lord Stanley, too frail for distribution, sits in the Hockey Hall of Fame – connecting the greatness of one generation to the next since 1893.
"The guys who are playing for it now, it's the same trophy that their heroes played for and the same one that their heroes played for and so forth," Pritchard explained on his and Campbell's first trip to L.A. "It's got the tradition like no other trophy in sport has. … But I think most of all, if you look at it, it's a thing of beauty."
A few quick facts about the Cup:
• It's actual name is the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup; it's only nicknamed after Lord Stanley of Preston, who donated the Cup in 1892.
• Five rings, bearing engravings of every Cup winner's name, make up the bulk of the trophy.
• Each ring contains 13 championship teams, meaning every 13 years a ring is removed and placed in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
And the Cup isn't perfect, evident by the engravings of the names, which aren't all in straight lines. Done by hand, these imperfections conjure up an image of an old man dutifully carving each letter with care. For a workman's trophy, any other way would be just wrong.
"No matter what the lighting or what the circumstance," Campbell says, "the Cup looks awesome."
He and Pritchard work for the Hockey Hall of Fame, the actual keeper of the Cup. Since 1998, they've been handing out the 34½-pound trophy together.
It used to be that they could carry it with them onto the plane. But 9/11 changed that. Now they check it, packed away in a padded trunk, just like any other piece of luggage – only bigger.
The morning after the Devils won Game 5 on Saturday night to send the series back to Los Angeles, Pritchard and Campbell loaded up the Cup, along with the Conn Smythe Trophy, into the back of their rental van and made their way to Newark Airport. There, they rolled the two trophies onto a shuttle that took them to the terminal, where they checked in their bags. Because the trophy boxes were locked, they had to open them for security officers in a screening room.
"Your day starting or ending?" Pritchard asked the baggage attendant.
"Ending. It's been a long day," he replied.
"Well," Pritchard said, "I'm about to make your day."
In the screening room, Pritchard unlocked the cases and opened them up.
"Is that what I think it is?" a security officer asked.
Outside the propped-open door, a group of travelers walked by. One looked in and stopped dead.
"Holy [expletive]," he belted. His buddies ahead of him told him to hurry up. "You want to come back for this," he told them. "Trust me."
As soon as they saw the Cup, cell phones were out, high-fives were traded and off they went, texting away the photos as fast as they could.
Pritchard was right – he did make the security officer's day, and then some. After the Cup got the full security treatment, complete with the white-swab bomb residue check, Campbell offered a tip to the baggage attendant and off they went to the gate.
Five hours later they landed in L.A., headed to oversize baggage claim, picked up the Cup and the Conn Smythe Trophy, hopped on another shuttle bus and made their way to the hotel.
By the time the first period ends in Game 6, Pritchard, Campbell and the Cup are rolling down Manchester Avenue on their way to Staples Center. They drive by The Forum, where the Kings got their start in L.A. 45 years ago. By the time they hit the 110 Freeway North, Jeff Carter has scored 1:30 into the second period to give the Kings a 4-0 lead. Ten minutes later, they're turning onto a barricaded L.A. Live Way just west of Staples.
"We have a trophy that the L.A. Kings are going to win tonight," Pritchard tells a police officer, who promptly waves them through.
A police escort is waiting for them as they reach the loading dock of the arena. Fourteen miles on their own, the last 100 yards led by a squad car packed with four of L.A.'s finest. It's a scene scripted for TV, one that played out similarly back in Newark two days earlier, only this time it's for real.
As Pritchard and Campbell unload the Cup from the back of the van, arena workers crowd around, unable to contain themselves. They know what's inside the box and that, with their team holding a 4-0 lead, it's coming out tonight.
Over the next period-and-a-half, the Cup sits on a bunting-draped table inside the referees' locker room, where Pritchard has placed it with his omnipresent white gloves. An almost continuous stream of NHL officials, police officers and other VIPs flow into the room for a photo and out with a story.
Midway through the third, the restless crowd begins to chant: "We want the Cup! We want the Cup!"
By now, Pritchard is off to put the Conn Smythe Trophy in place for its delivery to playoff MVP Jonathan Quick. Campbell is left alone with the Cup.
"It's a great honor," he says moments before he picks up the Cup and heads to the tunnel where he'll meet up with Pritchard. "It's something I never asked to do, and Phil asks me every year."
With the Kings now up 6-1, a throttling no one expected, the only drama left in the building is the delivery of the trophy every hockey player grows up dreaming of hoisting over their head. Pritchard finds Campbell in the tunnel, the two pick the trophy up off a folding chair and wait for their cue.
After the final horn sounds and the Kings' celebration simmers down and a red carpet has been rolled onto the ice, an announcer comes on the P.A. system.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he begins, "the Stanley Cup."
Escorted by Pritchard on its right and Campbell on its left, the star of the show finally arrives to a crowd that can't wait to get its hands on it. The three take the "home ice walk," as Pritchard calls it, almost halfway around the boards to center ice where NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is waiting. They place it on a table and retreat into obscurity. Bettman calls Dustin Brown, the Kings captain, to come forward for a photo, and when they're done he looks at him and says, "Go ahead."
Like Lemieux and Gretzky and all the other greats before him, Brown grabbed the Cup, thrust it above his head and planted his lips right on it. And the Cup, as always, looked awesome.
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