Saturday, May 7, 2016

Tomorrow the World, Part I

FOR PURE BADASS GRANDEUR, it's hard to beat the Stanley Cup.

A horse-and-buggy era prize still fought for in the time of self-driving cars, it's the mac daddy of big league trophies. So cool, it defines the National Hockey League championship. The object of the game is to possess it. NHL dynasties are measured by success in doing so.

Sure, the other so-called major team sports have their prizes. The NBA bestows something like a golden basketball perched on the edge of a wastebasket, the NFL has its trylon-impaled chrome football and baseball has, well... let's come back to that.

Formally known as the Larry O'Brien Trophy -- named for a long-time league commissioner -- the National Basketball Association's top award is actually a two-foot tall, Tiffany & Co.-cast sterling silver ball and hoop, sheathed in 24-karat gold. While not lacking for bling, according the Maps of the World website, it suffers from a lack of recognition and perhaps of cachet.

Tiffany also makes the venerable Vince Lombardi Trophy, awarded annually to the NFL's Super Bowl winner. Appearances aside, it's not chrome, but sterling silver like its NBA cousin.

The baubles are bestowed, but nobody speaks in terms of Larrys or Lombardis won. It's about three-peats and one for thumb. The hardware is almost incidental, announced trips to Disney World more memorable.

Soccer too has a sought-after "cup,"* but the emblematic trophy, which stands just 14.5 inches (36.8 cm) tall, is kind of dinky considering the planetary nature of the tourney that precedes it.

So Lord Stanley's grail, at nearly three feet (89.54 cm) tall and 34.5 pounds (15.5 kg) is the undisputed heavyweight champion of championship hardware.** All hail to the lord of the rings.

But there was once a challenger.


If you were born after 1990, the 30-team NHL may seem like part of the firmament, an immense and immensely successful and mostly stable major league. In the geologic history of the sport, however, that's a relatively recent development.

For most of its history, the NHL was tiny, mono-divisional unit romanticized nowadays as the Original Six that included no team south or west of Chicago. All that changed when the league doubled in size in 1967, then added two more franchises in 1970.

In 1971, six of its 14 teams were veritable toddlers, two more mere infants, and not all of them were healthy. Two of the new teams would ultimately move and one of those two would later fail.

Enter the World Hockey Association, boldly going where major league hockey had never gone before: Cleveland.
A fight to capture the globe

Plus Edmonton,  Winnipeg, Quebec City and Houston. Franchises were also placed in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Paul and Ottawa. Twelve in all took the ice in 1972, half of them in markets without an NHL rival. They raided the elder league for talent and signed away the Blackhawks' Bobby Hull, the Bruins' Derek Sanderson and the Flyers' Bernie Parent. Red Wings legend Gordie Howe came out of retirement to play with sons Marty and Mark on the Aeros in Houston.

All they needed was a championship trophy.

Teams, talent and trophies cost money, so the WHA's top prize got a sponsor. The AVCO Financial Services Corp. paid $500,000 for the right to put it's name on the Avco World Trophy. True to it's name, it came with a crystalline globe that appeared to float in the Lucite stem connecting the silvered bowl to its cylindrical base. While it wasn't the Stanley Cup, it was pursued all the same.

Over the six seasons the trophy was available (it was absent in year one), Winnipeg's Jets won it the most, three times, including 1976 when the Bobby Hull and company swept the Howe family and friends in four straight.

The star studded rosters for the WHA's 1976 Avco World Cup championship series.
The world was not enough. After seven tumultuous seasons that saw both the NHL and WHA rocked by franchise instability and failure, they declared peace. Winnipeg, Edmonton, Hartford and Quebec City were admitted to the elder league. The World Hockey Association folded and its planetary award became a part of hockey history.

But about that baseball trophy

Despite it's name, there's never been anything particularly worldly about Major League Baseball's World Series, a tournament that has included a team based outside the U.S. just twice since 1903.

Nonetheless, top teams were annually crowned the World Champions and, starting in 1967, received a flag bedecked gold and black trophy attesting to that status though the knobby appendage at the center of its base was not a globe, but a baseball.

But, in 1999, the MLB's (nameless) Commissioner's Trophy was redesigned, by Tiffany, and the award's recipient was subtly downgraded from World Champion to World Series Champion.

Sterling silver became the dominant color, with gold accents, while the stair-step ring of flags, one for each MLB franchise remained. The knobby appendage, which had been flanked by press pins representing the pennant winners fighting for that year's title, all vanished. So too did a gold hoop and crown.

In their place: a curving dome featuring baseball stitching, in gold, and etched in the silver semi-sphere, the latitudinal and longitudinal lines of a globe.

The world, at last.

The 1977 World Champion Yankees and...
... the 2005 World Series Champion White Sox.

* I'm sorry, but that doesn't look very cup-like, but its purloined predecessor did.

* * Russian's Kontinental Hockey League awards it's champion the Gagarin Cup, named for the first Cosmonaut to orbit the earth and return home safely. At least one website says it weighs 40 pounds.

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