There is a new "drop-dead" date for whether the Stanley Cup will be awarded this season: Jan. 18, 2013.
And, surprisingly, the deadline wasn't set by the National Hockey League.
An expansive plan is in the works to force a "challenge" for the Stanley Cup that would honour the original intention of Lord Stanley of Preston, who bequeathed the trophy to the people of Canada more than 120 years ago.
The shinny-loving Toronto lawyers who, seven years ago, took the NHL to court to prove the league did not, as claimed, own the Stanley Cup, are back – and this time with the potential financial backing to see the Stanley Cup awarded in 2013, even if there is no NHL season.
They figure that by Jan. 18 – a date presumed to be around the NHL's own moment of decision – it should be clear whether the league and its locked-out players can reach a collective agreement.
If they have not, then their group – Spirit Challenge Cup – will launch their initiative to ensure the cup is played for by amateur teams in a "challenge" format.
"How we do it is up to the people of Canada," organizer Tim Gilbert said.
The plan is rooted in Lord Stanley's own words.
"I have for some time been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the champion hockey team in the Dominion," the governor-general wrote in a letter to the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Association on March 18, 1892.
Mr. Gilbert, along with lawyers Gard Shelley and David Burt – both of whom belong to the "Wednesday Nighters," a recreational hockey league composed of Upper Canada College "old boys" – have teamed up this time with financier Loudon Owen, who once played hockey in Europe. Mr. Owen is also a lawyer and famous for winning a $290-million (U.S.) patent infringement case against Microsoft Corp.
Currently, he serves as chair of Anthem Media Group, a sports media holding company that is a major shareholder in Pursuit Channel in the United States, and, in Canada, controls the Fight Network (of which former media mogul Leonard Asper is chief executive officer).
As the NHL found out during the 2004-05 lockout, the Toronto lawyers are a force to contend with once they start on something. Inspired by then-governor-general Adrienne Clarkson's pronouncement that the Stanley Cup was given to "the people of Canada," not the NHL, they took the league and the cup's trustees to court. Nearly three years later, they gained a memorandum of agreement that was signed by cup trustees Brian O'Neill and Ian (Scotty) Morrison, as well as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
In Article 1 of that legal document, the trustees and league concede that nothing "precludes the Trustees from exercising their power to award the Stanley Cup to a non-league team in any year in which the League fails to organize a competition to determine a Stanley Cup winner."
Various people, including cup guardian Howard Borrow and Edmonton MP Brent Rathgeber, have recently suggested the cup be raised even if the league sits out a year. "The cup doesn't really belong to anybody," Mr. Borrow said recently in Montreal. "It almost belongs to everybody – so, technically, it could be played for."
Mr. Rathgeber has said it should go to an amateur team. When the trophy, known then as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, was first awarded in 1893, there was no such thing as professional hockey.
"My first choice," Mr. Shelley said, "would be the NHL saves the season and awards the Stanley Cup to the playoff-winning team. However, if the NHL is not available, then the cup, in the spirit of the donation by Lord Stanley, should be awarded to an amateur team." Mr. Owen said Spirit exists "to ensure the spirit of hard, fair play enshrined in Lord Stanley's vision and the Stanley Cup itself is kept alive and vibrant."
The group is launching a website (spiritchallengecup.ca) and inviting Canadians to contribute their ideas and suggestions. Submissions will be closed off on Jan. 18, and a decision made on the most feasible plan that would be popular with Canadian hockey fans.
The group is looking for something "out of left field" that would not be perceived as threatening or insulting to the players – such as having American Hockey League teams play for it – and would capture the original spirit of the governor-general's gift. Some ideas that have been tossed about include a women's tournament, an under-14 tournament, a tournament involving first nations youth and – though quickly discarded – a suggestion the cup be put up for grabs among beer leagues. Consideration will also be given as to whether or not teams from the United States and Europe should be contenders for the trophy.
Through the group's connection with the Fight Channel, a TV production team with Olympic hockey broadcast experience is tentatively in place, should the group decide to go ahead. Mr. Shelley cautions that the worst thing the league could do would be to try to stop such a "challenge." Supporting the idea, Mr. Shelley said, "would go a long way in winning back the hearts of the fans."
If the project fails to get NHL approval, the Spirit group is prepared to go ahead anyway. As Mr. Gilbert put it, "We'll show them the real meaning of hockey in this country."
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