'I'm ready whenever': The keeper of the Stanley Cup awaits his return to action

Kevin Sousa / NHL / Getty Images

The job for which Phil Pritchard is admired and widely known - shepherding the Stanley Cup to events, parties, and championship parades across the hockey-playing world - overshadows his official role at the Hockey Hall of Fame: vice president and curator of the resource center. Behind the scenes in Toronto, he tends to the Hall's vast material archives, which include 4,000 sticks taken from various eras and milestone games. He planned to sort and catalog some of them one still afternoon earlier this week.

"You caught me in the office," Pritchard said by phone Tuesday. "It's quiet. Nobody's here."

So went a workday in Pritchard's life absent the NHL, with no flight to catch or Stanley Cup Playoffs to follow - and with the trophy itself securely encased at the Hall, waiting just the same. Decades into his term as the Cup's most recognizable keeper, Pritchard, 58, is accustomed to being in public and in motion. Now he mostly sits in his backyard in nearby Burlington, Ontario, marking the passage of time via his choice of attire: a tuque in March, right after the season paused due to COVID-19; a T-shirt and shorts as summer beckons.

Phil Pritchard (right) and Hockey Hall of Fame colleague Craig Campbell. Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

Even as the NHL trends toward a comeback, it isn't yet known when the league's 24-team playoffs will begin, or if Pritchard will feature in the familiar tableau that heralds the end of every season. As Gary Bettman speaks into a microphone and is booed after the final game, Pritchard and his Hall colleague Craig Campbell carry the Cup to the ice so that it can be handed to the jubilant victorious captain. The St. Louis Blues were crowned champions June 12, 2019 - a year ago Friday, and an anniversary that this year's Stanley Cup Final, if it can be held, will necessarily miss by several months.

"For me, it's the best part of the season. There's a new chapter in the life of the Stanley Cup," Pritchard said. The difference in 2020: "All those emotions that were building up as we headed into March have been put on hold."

Though he's endured full and partial NHL lockouts before, the ongoing hiatus represents new territory for the 32-year Hall employee. During Pritchard's first week on the job, he volunteered to accompany the Cup to a suburban minor-hockey function that Friday night. The duty stuck, and these days, the NHL's typical postseason schedule calls for him to travel with the trophy throughout April, May, and June as they stop in a succession of participating cities.

Pritchard is on the road about 180 days per year, maintaining an expansive itinerary even before the playoffs and the revelrous global tour that the winning team gets to organize and enjoy. This February alone, Pritchard and his silver charge spent five days in the Northwest Territories ahead of Hockey Day in Canada festivities in Yellowknife; touched down in Colorado for an Avalanche-Kings outdoor game; and visited St. Louis native and ardent Blues fan Jenna Fischer - Pam on "The Office" - at her California home.

Pritchard, in 2017, with Hall of Famers Frank Mahovlich (Leafs jersey) and Bernie Parent (Flyers). Andrea Cardin / NHL / Getty Images

Early in March, Pritchard took his most recent trip with the Cup to Northern British Columbia for a charity event with Broad Street Bullies-era Flyers defenseman Joe Watson. He was supposed to pop into the Vancouver area the weekend of March 13-15, only for the season to be suspended a day earlier.

The Cup has been locked in the closed Hall building ever since, and Pritchard has logged plenty of time at home, where he lives with his wife Diane and their three children, plus his son's girlfriend and their daughter. Everyone is healthy, and it's been wonderful, for once, to eat three meals a day together, Pritchard said: "Hopefully my kids feel the same." Save for the occasional office visit, he mans his computer and phone at the backyard gazebo, where the family dog, Zoe, has been at his side for every Zoom meeting and conference call.

Those calls include weekly check-ins with the NHL to discuss return-to-play considerations and what-ifs. Players returned to the ice in small groups this week for voluntary training sessions, but timing and locations still have to be confirmed for the league's agreed-upon playoff format. Pritchard, meanwhile, is awaiting word on the role he might play at the conclusion of a hub-city final. Whether he'll be present to deliver the Cup as usual is one of many open questions.

"Like everyone else, I'm ready whenever," Pritchard said. "The Cup is here. It's clean, ready to go. It's preserved. It's secure. There's no worries about that. Like it's done for the last 127 years, it's hoping it's going to have a winner."

Only twice in that span has the trophy gone unawarded: in 1919, when the final was cut short because of influenza days before Hall of Fame defenseman Joe Hall died, and in 2005, thanks to the season-long lockout. More commonly, Pritchard devotes his summer to facilitating the championship club's customary day-with-the-Cup tour. Last year, the Blues brought it to 36 cities in the United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Russia, and were said to have caused the first traffic jam in the history of 85-person Calahoo, Alberta, the hometown of head coach Craig Berube, when 3,000 people turned up to celebrate.

Blues defenseman Carl Gunnarsson kisses the Stanley Cup last June. Dave Sandford / NHL / Getty Images

Could a title tour of any size plausibly be staged this year? That's to be determined, Pritchard said, since it will depend on what the world looks like when the postseason ends. Another development to watch: whether the coronavirus pandemic dissuades players, now and in the future, from repeating certain traditional, intimate expressions of joy, such as kissing the Cup or drinking from its bowl.

"We'll wait to see what the new normal is," Pritchard said. "Obviously, sanitization and following health codes are really important. It'll be no different with the Stanley Cup or coming through the Hockey Hall of Fame or going to a movie. We'll be following (the) guidelines. I know the players and their families will, as well. What that will be yet, nobody knows."

Pritchard is far firmer on this matter: If the playoffs proceed as planned, the eventual winners' achievement shouldn't be saddled with an asterisk, real or metaphorical. With the caveat that he's conspicuously biased, Pritchard said he thinks the Cup is the best trophy in sports in part because its championship engravings recount every season's conclusive storyline: "SERIES NOT COMPLETED," in the case of 1919, or the names of the Blues a century later.

For the past while, Pritchard has stayed in weekly touch with Campbell, Mike Bolt, and Howie Borrow, fellow regular handlers of the Cup. Hockey's shutdown has given him occasion to reminisce about the dance that he and Campbell are used to performing annually toward the end of the final. Once a team reaches three wins in the best-of-seven, the Cup is whisked out of sight, and as potential deciding games unfold, they wait in the wings to see if the series is settled or extended a couple more nights.

The exercise has afforded him the gift of patience even as excitement peaks. Knowing what's at stake in the next months, he can be patient now, too.

"If we have a Stanley Cup champion, that is great," Pritchard said. "As long as we're all healthy, that's even better."

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

'I'm ready whenever': The keeper of the Stanley Cup awaits his return to action
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