A job for a captain, not a commissioner

We’re a week away from the beginning of the Stanley Cup Finals. The puck will drop in a NYC Metro area arena still to be determined. But one thing we do know is that within two weeks after that and possibly as soon as one, the NHL will crown a new champion and Gary Bettman will walk out onto the ice and hand Lord Stanley’s Cup to the captain of the winning squad.

This must be the last time such an event happens.

Forgive my bold assertion. Pardon my insistence. The job of awarding the trophy to the champion of a sports league is often eagerly undertaken by the league’s commissioner, whether David Stern or Bud Selig or Roger Goodell. 

But hockey in general and the NHL in particular isn’t like those other leagues. No other league can boast more tradition than a revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” like the NHL can. And that’s why the job of handing out hardware needs to go to a more worthy standard bearer.

Below the fold, I’ll break down this plan and explain why it must be so.

Tradition infuses hockey. From the named awards referencing the sport’s past to the congratulatory lineup at the end of even the most contentious post season series, hockey embraces the ethic of sportsmanship and the importance of history and tradition like no other game. The Stanley Cup itself memorializes those who earned the right to have their names etched on it.

Unlike the trophies for NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball victors, the same Cup is handed off from champion to champion. Since this represents a literal as well as figurative change of possession, why not have the captain of the previous year’s winner present the new champion’s captain with the Cup? Here’s why it must be so:

First, it represents fantastic sportsmanship. Like the handshakes and words exchanged between victor and vanquished, a captain who hoisted the Cup, is the ideal individual to present it to the next individual to earn such an honor.

Secondly, it’s dramatic. Entertain this charming bit of fiction for a moment. Let’s pretend the Bruins had advanced and were going to play in the Finals against the Kings. Zdeno Chara knows he is either going to hand the Cup to Dustin Brown or hold onto it. With more at stake comes more compelling play. And that makes a more entertaining game.

Finally, it’s unique. The NHL is an iconoclast. No other league uses a pure sudden-death overtime format. Their annual year end awards ceremony is one of a kind among major sports leagues, as is their relationship with the upstart broadcast partner challenging ESPN. 

As commissioner of the NHL, Gary Bettman has every right to award the trophy. But this is better. Bettman can give the speech about the great season and get booed lustily by the fans in whatever rink the final game is played. That’s the real PR of the moment, and as el queso grande, he can have that spotlight. I’m not at all suggesting that Zdeno Chara should be offering platitudes to the winning team.

What I am suggesting can be summed up in the motto of one of the Original Six. Famously, the locker room of the Montreal Canadiens is adorned with these words:

“To you from failing hands we throw the torch. Be yours to hold it high.”

The Cup presentation ceremony is a passing of a torch from one winner’s failing hands to the next. Be theirs to hold it high.