CHICAGO – The Stanley Cup has been used to baptize kids, as a feed bowl for the Kentucky Derby winner and travelled to places as far flung as strip clubs and a combat zone. In yet another first, the most macho piece of hardware in sports will make its first appearance in a gay-themed event, the city’s Gay Pride Parade.
Call it a sign of the times if you want, but the back story is so sweet it can stand on its own.
Recently traded Blackhawks defenceman Brent Sopel was looking for a way to pay tribute to his friend, Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and Burke’s late son, Brendan. Not long after Chicago won the Stanley Cup last month, Sopel knew exactly how he planned to spend his day with the 35-pound, three-foot-high polished silver trophy that arrives with its own white-gloved handler.
Brendan Burke, 21, was killed in an auto accident in Indiana on Feb. 5, three months after the Miami (Ohio) university senior and hockey team student manager made news by telling his parents and team members that he was gay. Sopel, who began his NHL career with Vancouver, struck up a lasting friendship with Brian Burke when he was the general manager there.
“Anybody who has had to bury a child has suffered a heartbreak and this was the first thing that came to mind,” Sopel said. “Everything that happened last year with Brendan coming out last year and dying three months later, it was a tragedy.”
When Sopel called Burke to tell him about his plan, he received an enthusiastic blessing.
“Our entire family is touched by the kindness of Brent and Kelly Sopel, and that of the Blackhawks,” Burke said Thursday in an email from Los Angeles, where he was attending the league’s draft meetings.
“This is not a small step—it’s a bold and important one. We are grateful that a statement of this magnitude is being made by the Sopels, the Blackhawks and the National Hockey League.”
Every NHL champion team gets a chance to pass the Stanley Cup around between players and staff members over a 100-day period during the off-season. That’s made it not only the most-travelled trophy in sports, but arguably the most versatile.
Colorado Avalanche defenceman Sylvain Lefebvre used it as a baptismal font for his daughter in 1996. Current NHL TV analyst and then-Ranger Ed Olczyk celebrated New York’s ending a half-century-plus championship drought in 1994 by lugging the cup to the barn so reigning Derby winner Go for Gin could dine from it. The Cup has even made three trips to Afghanistan as a morale booster for NATO troops stationed there, including one time when the base it was visiting came under enemy fire.
It’s also been used as an ashtray, junk drawer, geranium planter and even temporarily abandoned by the side of the road—the 1924 Montreal Canadiens stopped to fix a flat tire en route to a party and forgot it for several hours. It’s been displayed at the bottom of swimming pools by Pittsburgh’s Mario Lemieux and Colorado goalkeeper Patrick Roy and on the runway of more than a few exotic dancing clubs from Edmonton to New York.
“Everything gets signed off on by the league,” said Phil Pritchard of the Toronto-based Hockey Hall of Fame.
Last year, the Conn Smythe Trophy—awarded to the playoff MVP—appeared in Toronto’s Pride Parade as part of a tourism promotion. But Pritchard, the cup’s full-time caretaker, confirmed it was the first time the sport’s biggest icon would appear at a gay-themed event.
“It gets taken to a lot of events and parades,” he said. “This one worked and fit in perfectly.”
The Chicago Gay Hockey Association sent an invitation to the team right after the Blackhawks beat Philadelphia to break a 49-year championship drought of their own.
“It was the most pleasant surprise we could have gotten,” association president Andrew Sobotka said. “We didn’t even expect a response,”
When the club passed along the request to players, Sopel and wife Kelly volunteered. The couple doesn’t plan to bring along their kids, saying the festive, sometimes-bawdy atmosphere might be a little too chaotic.
“I’m not really there to make a big statement,” Sopel added. “But everybody is a person and we all have feelings.”
The salary cap-strapped Blackhawks may have hurt Sopel’s feelings by trading him to Atlanta earlier this week, along with playoff star Dustin Byfuglien and forward Ben Eager for a package of draft picks and players. The club, however, will fly the trophy back to Chicago from Los Angeles, where it had been on display at the draft.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Associated Press freelance writer Matt Carlson contributed to this report.