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Rainy days and Mondays don’t get Priscilla Levine down. Not when the Stanley Cup is in town and her beloved Capitals are making the most conspicuous championship run in franchise history.
“I can definitely see Adam Oates skating around the ice carrying one of these,” said Levine, a foot soldier in the army of Caps loyalists who came to MCI Center to gawk at, lay their hands on, and fantasize about the Cup.
Throughout the brief, early-afternoon display of the most celebrated beer stein in all of sports, the otherwise unused arena’s corridors always seemed about half-full.
But never half-empty.
“This could be the year,” Levine, a 20-year Caps fan and proud owner of an authentic Dale Hunter jersey ($150), optimistically prattled just after her first-ever private audience with the Cup. The 3-and-a-half foot icon is decorated with the name of every player who ever played a part in winning it.
“I know it’s never been easy rooting for this team, but for the first time, I really think the Caps can win a Cup,” echoed Bart Franz, wearing a licensed Caps sweat shirt ($55) and an official Caps wristwatch ($60), and admitting that his wardrobe also includes a game-worn jersey from former Cap Al Iafrate ($200) and a replica Peter Bondra shirt ($100).
At no point in the MCI Center exhibition did Paul Oke, one of the few attendees devoid of Caps memorabilia, let the Cup out of his sight. Then again, he never does: Oke is employed by the NHL Hall of Fame as caretaker of the trophymeaning wherever it is, he is. He spends most of the year traveling around North America with the Cup packed in foam inside an unmarked blue chest. Most baggage handlers, he said, have no idea that they’re handling such precious cargo. But once the Cup leaves its box, Oke is supposed to let fans get amazingly friendly with it.
While Levine and Franz were content just to paw and photograph the hardware, others went so far as to place a piece of paper against the multilayered memento and rub a pencil over it in hopes of copying some portion of the extensive engraving on the Cup, much as visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial do.
“My girlfriend likes the Rangers,” shrugged one pencil-rubber, taking away a poor man’s Xerox of the roster from New York’s glorious Cup-winning squad of ’94.
Paul Tagliabue surely wouldn’t want the hoi polloi treating his Lombardi Trophy like that. But Oke has no problem with such fan-handling of the Cup.
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“We want people to feel like they can touch the Cup,” he said. “What makes us different from other sports is the tradition we have with the Cup. We don’t have a new trophy created each year, like all the other sports do. This is the people’s Cup, and we want it to have a hands-on feel.”
Because of all the hands-on activity, however, Oke has to polish the trophy at the end of each day before packing it back into the box. And he also has it professionally buffed twice a week.
It’s not zealous hockey fans who make Oke’s job occasionally difficult, however.
It’s the players.
Turns out that all members of a championship team not only have their names engraved on the Cup, but also are permitted to borrow the 35-pound carafe for a day or two during the off-season. Some players take too much advantage of that privilegelike Steve Yzerman, captain of ’97 champs the Detroit Red Wings, and Chris Simon, the Caps’ policeman who formerly played on the Colorado Avalanche’s Cup-winning squad. Those players on different occasions have taken the Cupand therefore Okealong on fishing trips.
But once the season starts, it’s back to the fans for Oke and the Cup. Though the Caps’ recent success gave a huge boost to attendance at the trophy viewing, the team’s current push toward its first title had nothing to do with the Cup’s presence here, Oke said. The D.C. trip was part of a promotional tour put on by the NHL Hall of Fame in conjunction with Fox Sports, which has been unable to get anybody to watch its hockey telecasts now that traditional draws like the Rangers and Penguins and Flyers aren’t among the eight teams still alive. Having a Fox affiliate, not a championship contender, is what brought the Cup to Washington this time.
Oke last came to D.C. in February, when the Detroit Red Wings, the defending NHL champs, took the customary Cup-winners’ visit to the White House, bringing the hardware with them.
Most of Oke’s destinations aren’t quite so glamorous. He spent the weekend watching over the Cup in a shopping mall in Nashville, which will become an NHL city next year with the launching of the expansion Predators. And after his one day in D.C., he took the trophy to Red House Run Elementary School in Baltimore, which will never be a major-league hockey townbut does have WBFF-Fox 45.
Oke is also compensated for being a scholar of the Cup, and he patiently fielded any and all questions thrown at him during the two-hour stay at MCI Center. A lot of those questions involved the Cup’s history, such as when, where, and for whom the sterling silver-and-nickel trophy was built, and at what cost (1892; Sheffield, England; Lord Stanley, of course; and $48.67, Canadian). Other bits of Cup lore went unasked-for, including the fact that it was once won by a team called the Kenora Thistles, and that once upon a time in Ottawa, it was punted into the Rideau Canal during a victory party gone bad.
But all of the history in the room took a back seat at the MCI Center. Cup-gazers like Levine and Franz were far more concerned with the near future, so the question Oke got most often was, “How do you think the Caps are going to do?”
“Oh, the Caps have a real good chance this year,” responded Oke, keeping his eyes on the prize and sending everybody home happy.Dave McKenna