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While the NHL might sit at the bottom of the North American professional sport power rankings, hockey does have one ace up its sleeve. For all of the league’s issues — ranging from player safety problems to general cultural roadblocks — the Stanley Cup is one of the coolest trophies around. Even if you aren’t a fan of the Tampa Bay Lightning or the Montreal Canadiens, there’s something impressive about seeing the winning team lift a giant piece of silverware bearing the names of former champions.

For all of that appeal, though, the Stanley Cup doesn’t have the most intuitive name. The Lombardi Trophy, of course, is named after a legendary coach. Baseball’s Commissioner’s Trophy gets its (generic) title from the league’s top executive. So who is Stanley, and why does the NHL’s top prize carry his name?

The Stanley Cup is named after Sir Frederick Arthur Stanley, former Governor General of Canada

These days, the majority of NHL teams reside south of the United States-Canada border. The ice game has a special place in Canadian culture, however, so it isn’t surprising that the Stanley Cup carries the name of one of their former politicians.

In 1888, Stanley was named the Governor General of Canada, making him the royal representative on the ground in North American dominion. The following year, he and his family attended the Montreal Winter Carnival and witnessed a relatively new sporting craze known as ice hockey. Stanley, like much of the population, became hooked.

Before long, Stanley made his most famous contribution to the sport, buying a silver bowl and gifting it to the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. While it was originally known as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup and went to the country’s top amateur team at the end of each year’s tournament, things changed over time.

Over the years, amateur hockey gave way to professionalism, and the NHL took over as the sport’s top level of competition. The trophy alsobecame known as the Stanley Cup in honor of the man who purchased it.

The Stanley Cup has taken on a life of its own over the years

While some of the details around the Stanley Cup have changed over the years, that hasn’t made the trophy any less special. If anything, the NHL has more traditions surrounding their championship prize than other sports.

As the NHL has shown in some masterful commercials, history is a key part of what makes the Stanley Cup so special. Below the original cup sit multiple silver bands, and each is engraved with the names of the players who claimed the trophy each season. While each ring eventually runs out of space and has to be removed — they’re then sent to the Hockey Hall of Fame for safekeeping — those engravings are tangible reminders of history. Once something is engraved on the cup, whether it’s a championship, a misspelling, or even the infamous “Season Not Played” inscription, it’s there forever.

That reality, combined with the overall challenge of winning an NHL championship — teams have to slog through a punishing regular season, then four best-of-seven playoff series — have made the Stanley Cup an almost mythical object. Players refuse to touch the trophy until they win it themselves; superstition dictates that having any contact with the cup before they’re deemed worthy would potentially keep them from ever being crowned champion.

Then, as part of the trophy’s legacy as a challenge cup, the team gets to enjoy a summer with Lord Stanley before returning it back to the league. At that point, the cycle starts all over again, with every player competing to win the same piece of silverware that their childhood heroes held.

The Tampa Bay Lightning seem poised to claim another championship

Steven Stamkos claims the Stanley Cup after winning the 2020 NHL championship.
Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos receives the Stanley Cup from NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. | Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the entire world was forced to make some changed. While the NHL was no exception to that reality, the Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t seemed affected by those alterations.

When the 2019-20 NHL season wrapped up in a bubble, the Lightning lifted their second Stanley Cup in Edmonton. While defending a championship in any sport, let alone hockey, can be tough, Jon Cooper’s men seem up to the task. Even with some injury issues, Tampa rolled through the regular season. They then advanced through the playoffs, overcoming a tough New York Islanders team to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. There, they simply seem to be too powerful for the Montreal Canadiens.

Although there’s some uncertainty around when they’ll clinch the series — Tampa’s mayor actually hopes they lose Game 4 to win the title on home ice — it seems to be a foregone conclusion that the Lightning will successfully defend their Stanley Cup crown. Lord Stanley probably would have never imagined his trophy would ever be awarded to a team from Florida but, once the final whistle sounds, no one wearing royal blue will mind.