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Stanley Cup returns to old Edmonton stomping grounds, but just here for a visit

EDMONTON — Stanley — that squat, barrel-bodied, bowl-topped polished silver mug — is officially back in Edmonton, a place he knew well back in the day.

EDMONTON — Stanley — that squat, barrel-bodied, bowl-topped polished silver mug — is officially back in Edmonton, a place he knew well back in the day.

But this time he's here strictly as a guest, staying behind closed doors, and is not entertaining visitors.

Nevertheless, the Stanley Cup is always top of mind in the Alberta capital to the point it's enmeshed in the city's iconography. Just ask original Oiler Kevin Lowe, named this year to the Hockey Hall of Fame, who moved here to win five cups and decided to stay.

"A friend of mine just messaged me this morning about the cup being awarded in Edmonton and I said ‘Well it's a fitting place for it actually,'" said Lowe in an interview.

"You can pick Montreal and a few other obvious cities, but in more recent times Edmonton is synonymous with the Stanley Cup.

"I'm sure other Canadian cities appreciate it and other U.S. cities as well but I don't know if there are many cities that truly appreciate hockey like Edmonton does."

The Oilers won five cups in seasons that started in the 1980s, capturing the fifth and final one against Boston in 1990.

Those memories are now a generation in the rear-view mirror, but the symbolism lives on. Drive past the United Cycle sporting goods store on the southside and you'll see fans posing for pictures outside beside the world's largest replica version of the cup (850 pounds of aluminum and almost 13 feet high) on permanent display.

Downtown, fans get selfies beside a life-size Wayne Gretzky statue holding up the cup in front of the home rink — Rogers Place.

Inside the rink, there are smaller replica cups under glass at the entrance of the Oilers dressing room, reminding players of past glory every time they walk in.

Edmonton and Toronto have hosted the bubbled post-season this fall, with the home of the Oilers handling the final four and the Stanley Cup final between the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars starting Saturday.

Rogers Place is well suited, given it has a pedway connection to a hotel as part of the city's revitalized Ice District. Rogers Place has not only the main rink but also a practice facility under the same roof, easy for COVID-free bubbling.

The post-season has been perfect to date medically. Travelling teams had to quarantine and get tested daily. Almost two months in and there have been no reported COVID-19 cases.

The games are held with no fans. No body heat means reduced temperatures with the smattering of reporters, staff and photographers in coats and mitts covering the action, the booming of slapshot pucks echoing off empty seats.

In has been surreal at times. One team is designated the home team, yet the canned cheers go both ways. When either team draws a penalty the announcer revs up both everyone and no one by drawling out: "It's a (insert team name here) POWERRRRRR PLAY!!"

When the whistle blows, the sound system leaps into action, blasting music to the rafters and sometimes, but not always, drowning out copious player-to-player F-bombs that form the rebar of heat-of-battle colloquy, meeting the call of duty as nouns, verbs, adjectives, sometimes even adverbs (sometimes all in the same sentence).

They have tried for verisimilitude. When Oilers star Connor McDavid scored a hat trick against Chicago, staff threw hats on the ice to replicate the traditional spontaneous fan tribute. McDavid said later he'd have preferred they forgo the chapeau salute and get on with the game.

Sometimes the reality is too real. When Colorado goalie Philipp Grubauer did the splits versus Dallas and appeared to pull a groin, even reporters working on converted drink rails high up in the arena could hear him cry out in pain.

The players say with no fans in the stands they have worked harder to pump each other up on the bench and give them the jolt of adrenalin.

Ah yes, the fans.

The city has worked to keep fans away from players and it has worked. Drive past Rogers Place on game nights in the late summer heat and it's as if nothing is going on inside. No extra fans.

Bars and restaurants say that when the Oilers were playing in the first round, business was up. Cars, meanwhile, flew Oilers flags.

But when the Oilers fell to Chicago in qualifying-round play, business that had flowed began to ebb, as it always does when the Oil is extinguished.

At West Edmonton Coin and Stamp, where they sell vintage hockey cards, autographed prints and sports paraphernalia, some of that Oilers enthusiasm that waned in the wake of the loss to the Blackhawks was replaced by Vancouver Canucks fans enjoying that team's first trip to the post-season in five years.

"We definitely saw a lot more Vancouver Canucks fans than we've seen in the past," said Breigh Linden, who handles the sports business side of the ledger at the store.

She said Canucks fans were celebrating the present, buying car flags and decals, and remembering the past, buying signed prints of "old school guys" like Trevor Linden, Kirk McLean and Pavel Bure.

"Trevor Linden, that's a big seller," said Breigh Linden, holding up a signed print. "Heart and soul, they call it."

Edmonton's love affair with the cup has always been up close and personal. The Oilers won four of their five cups on home ice. In 1984, after Cup 1, city streets were a cacophonic serenade of car horns honking long into the night. In 1987, some fans came for the celebration and stayed for the civil disobedience, tossing beer bottles at police and turning cup fun into a riot.

Stanley himself is a hard-partying and controversial bit of hardware.

In 1984 then-Oilers owner Peter Pocklington had his father's name engraved on the cup. It was later literally chiselled over with X's as Basil Pocklington had nothing to do with the win. Peter later attributed it to a clerical mixup.

In 1987, Stanley was famously photographed on the runway at Edmonton's Forum Inn in the embrace of a topless exotic dancer.

Some time in the next two weeks, either the Stars or Lightning will earn the right to have their names on the cup (but, hey, not their parents).

Stars general manager Jim Nill says its been like an extended road trip on the road to the cup, and in some ways the players are better for it.

"I think it changed our team," Nill told reporters earlier this week.

"Every day we're eating in the same room. They're playing cards in the room. They're watching golf on TV together. They're always together.

"You find out things about everybody else … These guys are family men. And they might be going through some things, but players step up and talk to them and help them through things. You can't have enough of that."

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman might also make history by standing at centre ice in an empty rink and handing over the cup to players who traditionally take it and then skate around holding it aloft to rapturous fans.

This time the fans have been replaced with yawning plastic tarps. But don't tell Lowe that less is less. Every cup, every season, is unique.

"There aren't too many opportunities to win the Stanley Cup," said Lowe, who won five with Edmonton and one with the New York Rangers in 1994, then came back to Edmonton to work as coach, general manager, and now as alternate governor.

"It's going to be unique to everybody involved. I don't want to say it'll be a chance (of) a lifetime, but who knows what's down the road for all of us. Life is like that," he said.

Players win the cup for themselves, their teammates and the fans, but Lowe said some of the best memories, and even new ones, come from those around them.

Lowe recalled going with his daughter to a pre-pandemic function at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

"The cup was there and she said, 'Oh look, dad, there's the cup," said Lowe.

Lowe remembers shrugging it off.

"For me it's been there done it," he said.

"But I quickly realized what a great opportunity to go get a picture of my daughter and I with the cup."

Stanley is still Stanley.

Even if he's now wearing a face covering.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2020.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press