NHL Rumors: Who is the Stanley Cup’s rightful owner?

The original Stanley Cup (at top) on display at the Hockey Hall of Fame. Photo by RasputinAXP via Wikimedia Commons.

We’ve already established that even though your thrown-together hockey team that meets once a week can play for the Stanley Cup, the chances of that actually happening are about as plentiful as the number of Cup wins for the Vancouver Canucks. Those two trustees in charge of the Cup are tough buggers.

Now, here’s a thought: if those guys don’t own the Cup, who does?

Let’s hop into the Wayback Machine to 1892, when Lord Stanley of Preston decided to award a prize to the best amateur hockey team in Canada. He sent his military aide to London to purchase a silver punch bowl with engraving, mounted on an ebony base. He assigned two trustees to oversee the Cup, and he gave them a list of rules for the Cup and themselves.

To try to figure out who owns the Cup now, you have to figure out one thing: did Lord Stanley donate the Cup as plain old Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley of Preston, 16th Earl of Derby, or did he donate it in his capacity as Governor General of Canada? There’s a big difference.

If he donated it as a personal gift, it means that it actually belongs to whoever is the current Earl of Derby. That means his great-great grandson would inherit it. Would he want it to be displayed at the home of the Stanley family, Knowsley Hall, or would he allow it to be kept in Toronto at the Hockey Hall of Fame?

If he donated it as Governor General, then he was donating it on behalf of the Canadian government. As long as there is a hockey season, the NHL has control of it. But when there’s no season, technically the Cup should be turned over to the Office of the Governor General. So, in essence, the Cup would belong to Canada by way of the government.

The problem is that we don’t know what Lord Stanley’s intentions were. He didn’t leave any instructions other than the how, when and who of Cup eligibility rules. Was the original Cup bought with his money or Crown money? Was the engraving “From Stanley of Preston” personal or just to know who was Governor General at that time? We’ll never know.

There are a few wrenches that are thrown into the mix, namely Canadian trust and property laws and the fact that the Cup was first established 120 years ago. It makes things much more complicated and confusing.

When a group of beer-league hockey players sued the league to play for the Cup in 2005, a good deal of their argument was over Cup ownership. Part of the settlement was kept private, and the true identity of the Cup’s owner was probably sealed in it. It’s one of those things that hockey fans and historians will argue about for years to come.

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