The appeals of immortality has long beguiled humanity. Whether it’s the ambrosia of the Greek gods, the golden apples of the Norse or the peaches of immortality in ‘Journey to the West’, magical items that confer ever-lasting life have long featured in mythology. In modern culture, there’s an obsession with extending the length of our lifetimes through medicine, diet, and exercise. Science fiction frequently includes the technological marvel of uploading one’s consciousness onto a computer and creating a form of digital immortality. Whether through escapism and fantasy, or medical science and healthy living, human beings are obsessed with eluding the crushing inevitability of our own mortality. Hockey has had a solution to this riddle for a hundred years: the Stanley Cup.
Since 1924, this hallowed trophy has featured the names of every player, coach, and team-builder responsible for capturing it. It’s a legacy that will be preserved forever, or at least as long as people continue to care about hockey (so forever, basically). Lord Stanley’s Cup has and will continue to survive every person whose name is engraved on its surface. Future fans and historians will be able to check a physical relic for the names of the great players and coaches that once reached the crowning achievement of hockey, long after they’ve shuffled off their mortal coil.
No other trophy exists as a memorial to its previous owners — every other sport has custom-made trophies that are replaced every year. The New England Patriots have a china cabinet’s worth of Vince Lombardi trophies somewhere in their clubhouse. There isn’t just one Commissioner’s Trophy for baseball, as a unique one is crafted for every World Series’ winner. The gradual evolution of the NBA’s ultimate prize from the Walter A. Brown Trophy to the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, while interesting, also guarantees that there is no “one true trophy” in basketball. These trophies are a prize for the team that won it and nobody else. The Stanley Cup is a prize for the entire league. Every team that ever wins the Cup will honor your accomplishment while celebrating their own.
It’s why the NHL has a gravity and finality that no other league can claim. Every season is a fight to the death and a potential extension of life. Every victory is a stay of execution. As long as your team hasn’t been eliminated, it lives to fight on to preserve its chance at legacy and immortality. Once a team has been knocked out, that chance is lost, the year gone, and the opportunity to capture the ultimate prize may never come again. The games are like years in a life — they may be remembered fondly for a time, but once they’re over, there’s no getting them back.
The inescapable weight makes the triumphs that much sweeter. The margin for error is essentially non-existent and the consequences of failure are permanent and real. Taking a single play off, much more a night off, means forfeiting a chance at immortality. Those are the kinds of stakes that elevate every moment of every game to dizzying heights. A breakaway is no longer just a scoring chance. A defensive breakdown is not just a miscue. A save is no longer just a stop. These split-second moments have eternal consequences. The season isn’t just about determining who’s the best in any given year — they’re a way to ensure that a player’s name outlives their years.
They’re a matter of life and death and life beyond death. For the 31 teams beginning that journey tonight, there’s more than just glory is on the line.