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roy macgregor

Surely this has never before happened.

It has held beer, champagne and even babies, but the first known contact between water and the Stanley Cup was in 1905 when Hall-of-Famer Harvey Pulford, well into his own cups, drop-kicked the trophy off a bridge over the Rideau Canal following a victory by his Silver Seven.

Even then the water was frozen.

But there it was, the Stanley Cup, grown to more than 20 feet high and weighing 6,600 pounds, standing in the heart of Times Square with water squirting out its sides and all of New York invited to drink from it.

They erected the giant replica on Duffy Island, so named to honour Father Francis Patrick Duffy, a hero of the First World War, the most decorated cleric in the history of the U.S. Army and, appropriately for the occasion, born in Cobourg, Ont., in 1871.

Under spotty skies and in a chilly wind, poorly clad cheerleaders in New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils colours shivered and shook. Small boys wearing jerseys representing the 16 NHL playoff teams stood about staring more at the giant Stanley Cup than the real one, which was carried out by white gloves and set on a table for all and sundry to leave fingerprints on as they posed for photographs as if the Cup were itself a celebrity – and, in a way, it is.

"The greatest trophy in all of sports," the emcee claimed over a loudspeaker. "The greatest tournament in sports."

Among the thousands in Times Square – representing at least many dozen of the 800 languages spoken in New York – there might have been dissenters, but not among those let inside the ropes surrounding the NBC promotion for the playoffs that began Wednesday night and should end before the turn of the next century.

The first round is under way, and the first round, as all true hockey fans know, is the climax of the NHL season. Hockey is a most unusual sport in that the dictionary climax, the presentation of the real Stanley Cup, is anti-climactic and, often, of little interest to those fans who watch and get counted but really only want to get the damned thing over and get on with summer.

Even Gary Bettman, the commissioner of the National Hockey League, agrees that there is something special about Round 1, something that goes beyond games every night and the launch of the playoffs.

"The competitive balance is so great," he says on this cool day in Times Square, "that any of the 16 teams could emerge, ultimately, as the Stanley Cup winner. You have seen in the last seven years No. 8 seeds go to the Stanley Cup final. You've seen unpredictable results. It's a testament, I think, more than anything else in the game, to the way it's being played. Nobody doubts that these 16 teams are happier than the 14 teams that didn't make the playoffs. But nobody is happy with just making the first round. The players, the fans, the organizations expect more."

"More" could reach four rounds, each capable of going seven full games, meaning the winner could conceivably play 28 games beyond the 82 already played in the regular season. That is wearing by any measure.

It has been suggested many times in recent years – certainly by Vancouver in 2011, by Ottawa in 2007, by the Edmonton Oilers in 2006, by the Calgary Flames in 2004 – that not only players wear down but officials as well. Slippage takes place, with tough calls less and less likely as the importance of the games grows.

This, the commissioner argues, does not happen and will not happen in 2012.

"The standard will be held," he vows. "We were on a conference call with officials that Terry Gregson [director of officiating]was leading the other day and he reinforced the fact that the officiating standard is not to slip or change."

The same standards, he promises, will apply to supplemental discipline and any action the league's head of player safety, Brendan Shanahan, decides to take on players who cross the line on head shots or intent to injure.

"It is what it has been," Bettman says.

It is, of course, what it will be that will be the measure. And, equally of course, there will be critics of the officiating regardless of how strict and fair it might be seen by others; that is simply the nature of the beast that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.

It would be wonderful if, come June some time, hockey could look back and say the whistles were consistent, the rulings fair and no one rioted just because he lost.

The ribbon-cutting and announcements over, NBC and the city officials invited the public to line up and do as Harvey Pulford once did, drink from the Stanley Cup – water only, which might have been good advice for Harvey, as well.

They lined up down the street but had to reconfigure the line because the water pipes feeding the giant Stanley Cup had sprung a leak and workmen were scurrying under the huge structure with rolls of duct tape.

They set up barriers near the heaviest flow, not wanting anyone to slip.

Which, of course, is exactly what we all want.

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