The NHL does not own the Stanley Cup.
They just act like they do.
When Lord Stanley donated the original Cup in 1892 to promote hockey in Canada, he passed control of the trophy to two trustees. The trustees took care of the Cup and created rules as to how and to whom the Cup could be awarded. The first Cup winner was an amateur team, Montreal AC, in 1893. It was not awarded as an NHL-only championship trophy until 1927, although it was won before then by NHL teams playing against other leagues’ teams.
There have been two years when the Stanley Cup was not awarded: the first time was during the devastating Spanish Flu epidemic of 1919. The second time was because of the cancelled 2004-05 season. Interestingly, a group of Canadian fans (the ‘Wednesday Nighters’) filed suit in Ontario Superior Court challenging the NHL’s monopoly of the Cup. They argued that Lord Stanley intended that the Cup be handed out every year, and since the NHL season was cancelled the trophy should be up for grabs.
Guess what? They won (sort of).
In an out-of-court settlement, part of which is still sealed, the NHL admitted that the trustees could conceivably award the Cup to a non-NHL team in a year that the league didn’t play.
In other words, the league basically admitted that it doesn’t own the Cup.
"Nothing therein precludes the Trustees from exercising their power to award the Stanley Cup to a non-NHL team in any year in which the NHL fails to organize a competition to determine a Stanley Cup winner."
The current Cup trustees, Dan O’Neill and Ian Morrison, have stated that that will never happen.
"If there's no season, well, it's just one of those years, as we did before, where there was no trophy presented," Cup trustee Brian O'Neill said. "It's still an NHL trophy."
"The chances of both Brian and I agreeing that it should go to any group that plays for it, I wouldn't hold your breath," said fellow trustee Ian (Scotty) Morrison, who also serves on the board for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Sorry all you beer leaguers.
So as per tradition the Stanley Cup, the oldest trophy to be awarded to a professional sports team, and arguably the toughest in all sports to win, will be presented to the winner of this best of seven series between the Nashville Predators and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
And as per tradition Gary Bettman will be roundly booed as he does so.
It should be a great series.
(As long as the Preds win in four.)
Nashville blog: On the Forecheck
Pittsburgh blog: Pensburgh