- Mar 1, 2005<<Die-Hard Hockey Fans
Try a Legal Gambit
To Save Stanley Cup
With NHL Season Canceled,
Canadian Group Thinks
Trust May Have Answer
By RACHEL EMMA SILVERMAN
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 1, 2005; Page A1
A group of hockey-mad Canadians is hoping to perform a miracle
on ice: keeping the Stanley Cup championship alive this year.
No matter that the National Hockey League has canceled its
season because of a labor dispute with players. The supporters
of the movement, which calls itself "Free Stanley," argue that
forgoing the Stanley Cup competition would violate the terms of
a trust arrangement created more than a century ago -- and that
the trustees of the cup must consider awarding it to a non-NHL
The movement has quickly gathered traction among fans. The
freestanley.com <http://freestanley.com/> Web site, launched in
December, has drawn thousands of e-mails and some 250,000
visitors from around the world, including die-hard hockey lovers
and trust scholars. The group's efforts have prompted fiery
editorials and talk-radio rants throughout Canada.
Even so, the chances of reviving the Stanley Cup this year are
slim. The cup's trustees maintain that the cup won't be awarded
this year because the NHL season was canceled in February. Under
a 1947 agreement between the trustees and the NHL, the league
controls the competition for the Cup. "We are very aware of the
fans' frustration," acknowledges Bernadette Mansur, executive
director of the NHL Foundation, which manages the trophy's
The agitators behind Free Stanley are middle-aged Edmonton
hockey fans who hatched a plan to save the cup last fall while
out curling, another popular Canadian ice sport, and bemoaning
the NHL's labor unrest. The three founders -- Tom Thurston, the
assistant director of the Provincial Museum of Alberta; Michael
Payne, the province's official historian; and Mark Suits, a Web
designer -- began their crusade as something of a lark. But
their efforts grew more serious as they delved into the cup's
history and as more supporters came on board.
The Free Stanley creators say that their cause is bolstered by
the Stanley Cup's unusual history and the intricacies of
Canadian trust law. Their argument starts with a historical
fact: The Stanley Cup, when it was created, had absolutely
nothing to do with the NHL.
Instead, the championship trophy was proposed by Canada's
governor general, Lord Stanley, in a letter read at an Ottawa
dinner in March 1892. Soon after, Lord Stanley bought a silver
cup for 10 guineas -- about $50 at the time, according to the
Hockey Hall of Fame's Web site -- and named two trustees to
oversee the annual competition for the cup.
Lord Stanley's original vision for the cup showdown was a far
cry from the professional game and big salaries of recent
decades. The championship was originally designed as a challenge
match in which top Canadian teams could vie for the cup. At the
time, there was no NHL, just amateur teams. Lord Stanley also
mandated that the cup be awarded "from year to year." The only
time the cup was not awarded was in 1919, because of the deadly
"Our goal is to return Stanley to its roots as a challenge cup,"
says Mr. Thurston. "Even if there's no NHL season, it doesn't
mean there doesn't have to be a Stanley Cup playoff."
But Mr. Thurston and his fellows are facing a big hurdle: In
1947, the cup's trustees made a deal with the NHL, ceding
control of the Stanley Cup to the hockey league, so long as the
league continued to be the top professional hockey league in the
world. Under those conditions, the cup could be given only to
"My position is that if there is no NHL season this year, there
is no Stanley Cup this year," says Brian O'Neill, a former NHL
executive vice president and one of the cup's current trustees,
along with Ian "Scotty" Morrison, formerly the NHL's head
"The whole arrangement has evolved considerably over the years,"
adds Mr. O'Neill. "It was once strictly for Canada. It was
strictly for amateur hockey. It was a challenge cup where teams
come and make challenges. It's not a challenge cup anymore, and
I think that's something they ought to understand."
Free Stanley's lawyer, Roderick Payne, says that trust law might
be on his clients' side. He contends that the trustees' 1947
agreement with the NHL is void. Under Canadian trust law, he
argues, the trustees didn't have the authority to change the
terms of the trust and hand over the Cup to the NHL.
As a result, the trustees must act independently of the NHL and
the Stanley Cup trophy should still be awarded, even if there is
no NHL season, says Mr. Payne, a partner with Hustwick Wetsch
Moffat & McCrae, of Edmonton. (He isn't related to Michael
Payne, the Free Stanley co-founder.)
Free Stanley is trying to enlist an amateur or minor-league
hockey team to issue a formal challenge to the trustees, asking
them to allow a cup championship this year. The group's Web site
has step-by-step instructions for initiating a challenge.
In the meantime, Canadian government officials have been chiming
in on the matter. Adrienne Clarkson, Canada's current governor
general, has said the cup series should indeed be played this
year. She also has suggested -- to widespread controversy --
that it might be played among women's hockey teams. Ontario's
attorney general also launched an investigation into enforcing
the terms of the cup's trust, but later said he didn't have the
jurisdiction to demand that the cup be awarded.
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, where the Stanley Cup trophy
resides, says it has heard from hundreds of Free Stanley
supporters demanding that the Cup series be played.
The idea of a Stanley Cup challenge match has its share of
detractors, too. In particular, fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning,
which beat the Calgary Flames to claim the Stanley Cup last
year, have written letters to the Free Stanley Web site,
objecting to efforts to award the trophy to another team.
One respondent, however, seemed up for the challenge: "Now, if
you Canadians think you can get it back, get your players to
actually play some hockey and come get it.">>
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