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The Nation

Nirvana in Store for Hockey Fans

More than 1,300 score up-close looks at the fabled Stanley Cup on first day of local tour.

May 21, 2003|Kimi Yoshino and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

The line wound past the Hawaiian shirts, snaked through men's suits and pushed into underwear.

Turning a corner at jeans, it stretched through tools, past water purifiers, luggage, lawn mowers and barbecues. Past shoes. Past women's plus sizes!

Not until it reached women's dresses did the line that surged through the Sears store in Buena Park on Tuesday finally dwindle. More than 1,300 people waited their turn to see, touch and be photographed next to the most hallowed popcorn bowl, bait bucket and beer barrel in all of North America.

Hockey's Stanley Cup, which has been all those things and more in its 110-year history, arrived by limousine to kick off a promotional tour of Southern California with the Buena Park appearance, during which it showed why it is the most beloved and famous trophy in all of sports, or at least all of sports in the United States and Canada.

At least among hockey fans.

The occasion, of course, was the upcoming appearance of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Stanley Cup finals, where they will face the winner of a playoff series between the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils. Duck fans, and a few devotees of rival teams, took advantage of what many called a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the revered bowl.

In fact, the Stanley Cup is hardly reclusive. It's the most populist trophy in professional sports. Every member of a winning Stanley Cup team gets a chance to keep the Cup for a day, and do with it what he wants "within reason," according to National Hockey League rules. As a result, the Cup, best known for its annual victory skate on the shoulders of the NHL's newest champions, is no stranger to bars, restaurants, strip clubs, fishing holes, churches or, apparently, department stores.

For all that, or maybe because of it, it was received Tuesday with the hushed reverence once reserved for moon rocks, or Thomas Pynchon sightings.

"It's beautiful," gushed an awestruck Bob Daum, 68. The custodial contractor from La Habra arrived at 10 a.m., six hours before the Cup, to be the first in line. "It is one of the greatest things I ever could have done in life. It will never happen to me again."

Beau Lambert, a film student from Thousand Oaks, skipped school to come see the Cup with friends, but chided them for being star-struck as they waited in line. When it was his turn to climb onto a small stage and have his picture taken with the hockey chalice, his bravado faded. "I didn't even touch it," he mused afterward. "I was too scared to touch it. I just got the hockey vibes."

After which, the tall, red-haired 20-year-old stepped off the stage, tripped over his own feet and landed in an aisle near the Lands' End shorts.

The original Stanley Cup bowl, purchased in 1892 by Lord Stanley, the governor general of Canada, resides in a vault in Canada. Another Stanley Cup, a replica, sits permanently at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

But the one that makes the rounds is considered the real one, and has the dents and scrapes to prove it. The Cup stands 35 1/4 inches high, weighs 34 1/2 pounds -- it is 97% silver and 3% nickel -- and is covered with the names of hockey players, many of them misspelled.

The Cup is typically on the road more than 300 days a year. It has its own handlers, and travels in style. It arrived Tuesday in a black stretch limo, from which it was escorted by a white-gloved "Keeper of the Cup" to a section of menswear that was given over to Duck merchandise.

The Cup's appearance in Buena Park is part of a tour honoring the NHL's four Eastern and Western Conference finalists. Southern California is its last stop after junkets to Minneapolis, Ottawa and New Jersey. It was scheduled to be at Sears stores in Cerritos today and Costa Mesa on Thursday.

Those turning out to see the Cup were also given a chance -- if they made a purchase using a particular credit card -- to enter a contest, the winner of which will get to keep the Cup for a day.

For most people, it was enough to see and touch the Cup and have a picture taken with it. Or, in some cases, to just see it.

Hockey players have a superstition that allows only those who have won the Cup to touch it. To anyone else, the legend goes, touching it will mean they can never win it.

Before the Cup arrived, a debate raged in the line at the Buena Park store. Do fans count? If a Duck fan touches the Cup, will the Ducks' first chance at a Stanley Cup victory be doomed?

"I'm afraid to touch it if I'll jinx the Ducks," said Frank Asada, a 34-year-old fan from Irvine who brought his son, Clayton, as a treat for his 9th birthday.

"It's a respect thing," explained Chris Williams, 26, of Anaheim, who said a quick prayer for the Ducks -- but didn't touch the Cup -- when it was his turn on stage with it. He and his buddy, Dave Reese, even refused to have their photo taken, although the store was offering digital pictures for free.

"I never won it," said Reese. "Why should I get a picture when I'm not worthy?"

In the end, Asada and his son went the other way, deciding to abandon caution.

"We went up there and kissed it," Asada said. "Both of us."

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