Stanley Cup

Ann Arbor News, Aug. 23, 2002

So close, you can touch it
Stanley Cup and its guardian pay visit to Ypsilanti establishment
News Sports Columnist

His name is Walter Neubrand.

There’s no title on his business card. All it gives is his phone number at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

“You can call me the Stanley Cup guard,” he says with a shrug. "The keeper of the Cup. Whatever you want.”

Neubrand is standing in the alley outside Aubree’s Saloon in Ypsilanti. The most famous trophy in all of sports is here, the one that the Detroit Red Wings won back in June.

And so is Neubrand.

For nine months out of the year, when the cup hits the road, it is Neubrand’s job to be the bodyguard of Lord Stanley of Preston’s 3-foot, 35-pound creation. As well as its personal valet.

If this baby had diapers to change, he’d probably do it.

Thankfully, that’s not part of the program.

You could consider Neubrand’s life to be similar to that of a roadie for a mega-popular rock star. One who oodles of fans want to touch, hug and kiss. But one who, so far, hasn’t trashed any dressing rooms if there are too many green M&M’s.

It is Neubrand’s job to go obligingly wherever he and the Cup are beckoned. Like the recent trip to the Czech Republic, where players like Dominik Hasek used the Cup to raise money for flood relief.

Or Thursday night, two days after Neubrand and the cup arrived back in the United States, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland brought the  cup to Aubree’s on one of his two days with the cup. He did it as a favor to his college-age son, who often hangs out at the Depot Town establishment.

Inside, customers in the tightly packed bar are getting pictures taken with the Cup for $10 a pop, with proceeds going to Meals on Wheels. Just an hour or so ago, many had yelled and screamed like star-struck teenagers as a white-gloved Neubrand gently carried the silver chalice from the back of a red SUV into the restaurant. “Let’s go Wings,” some even yelled. (The white gloves are for effect, Neubrand freely admits. After all, this is no Tiffany quality piece)

The Cup is now inside the bar on a well-lit pool table that has been draped in a white tablecloth and festooned with roses. A photographer hired for the occasion points and clicks his digital camera very few seconds to capture some lucky fan’s moment of a lifetime.

A moment? Please. Neubrand’s time with the Cup never seems to end.

Not that he’s complaining.

“My son wants to know how you got the job,” an approaching father asks Neubrand, his son hanging back and smiling shyly at the question. “And when you retire, can he have it?”

“You work at the Hockey Hall of Fame for a while,” he says, smiling politely. “They learn to like you and trust you enough. And eventually they want you to do the job.”

Neubrand has had the job since the NHL decreed in 1995 that its precious trophy should have a full-time guardian. Coincidentally, or maybe not, the guardianship began a year after the New York Rangers’ Mark Messier brought the Cup to a strip club.

Stanley’s been through a lot worse and it’s up to Neubrand to make sure that the cup doesn’t get kicked into an Ottawa canal, wind up in the bottom of Mario Lemieux’s swiiming pool or get used as a peanut dish, all events during the Cup’s colorful past.

The cellular phone on Neubrand’s belt jingles.

“It’s Luc Robitaille,” Neubrand says, his eyes barely darting to the display as he excuses himself to take the call.

Listening to the conversation was a boy no more than 12 in a Red Wings jersey, wearing a stud earring in one of his ears. At 5:30 p.m, he had been first in line for pictures. The cup didn’t arrive until 10:30 p.m. It is now past midnight.

Just a few minutes earlier, this die-hard Red Wings fan had posed beside the cup – and kissed it as his shining moment was captured. “I liked to feel how much it weighed,” he says.

Neubrand returns, his conversation with the Red Wings forward concluded. On Saturday, Neubrand and the Cup will be in Los Angeles, Robitaille’s off-season home. It will soon be Robitaille’s turn to have some quality time with the Cup.

“Luc just told me that he wants to take it to Paramount Studios, he wants to take it to the ‘Star Trek’ set for a photo,” he says.

Luc’s a Trekkie?

Neubrand doesn’t say.

Gotta get back inside, he says. After all, the Cup’s there.

And that’s where he has to be.