Hockey Hall of Fame - Stanley Cup Journals: 27
The Stanley Cup Journal

The Stanley Cup arrives in Kosice, Slovakia 24 hours after its supposed arrival. 
The Stanley Cup arrives in Kosice, Slovakia 24 hours after its supposed arrival.
(August 8, 2003) — The Stanley Cup's handlers arrived in the historic city of Kosice Thursday afternoon at 2:15 local time, excited about the Stanley Cup's first visit to Slovakia as the guest of Devils' rookie Jiri Bicek.

In North America, we tend to think of history paralleling the founding of our countries - 1776 for the United States and 1867 for Canada. Buildings and monuments dating back to these eras are considered ancient and treasured. But Europe has a completely different perspective. For example, Kosice first appeared in a written journal in 1230. The magnificent St. Elizabeth's Cathedral was originally built in 1290, but after being destroyed by fire, was rebuilt in 1378. The structure still sits, much as it was built more than seven centuries earlier, in the city's central core. The coat of arms for Kosice was created in 1369 and is the oldest of any city in Europe.

Hall of Fame Honoured Members Stan Mikita and Peter Stastny were both born in what is now Slovakia. Although Mikita was part of the 1961 championship Black Hawks' team, players did not get to take the Stanley Cup home during that era. And Peter Stastny never won the Cup in spite of playing on some excellent Nordiques clubs. It may be an oxymoron, but new history was being made with the arrival of the Stanley Cup in Slovakia. "It's a great honour to be the first player to bring the Stanley Cup to Slovakia," Jiri Bicek began. "With NHL stars like Ziggy Palffy, Peter Bondra and Miro Satan all from my country, it is hard for me to believe that I'm the first to bring it home. But I can tell you, I am very, very proud."

Kosice is the second largest city in Slovakia with a population of 242,000. It sits nestled in a valley at the foot of the Cierna Hova Mountains to the north, the Volovske Vrchy Hills and the Slovak Ore Mountains to the west, the Slovensky Kras Hills to the southwest and the Slanske Vrchy Hills to the east. The Hornad River slices through the ancient city.

Jiri and his wife Lenka greeted the two officials from the Hockey Hall of Fame. Together, they went to claim the Stanley Cup. Meantime, seven thousand excited fans crowded Kosice's town square, ecstatic to be able to glimpse hockey's most legendary trophy. "Bratislava gets everything first," mentioned one spectator, commenting on Slovakia's capital. "We're so happy Jiri is bringing it home to Kosice first!"

The handlers from the Hockey Hall of Fame went with Jiri and Lenka as well as airline officials to claim the Stanley Cup from Special Services. It wasn't there. Astonished, the Cup Keepers searched the various baggage carousels to discover whether the Cup had been placed there. No luck. Had the well-travelled case been taken off the plane and placed in a different area? Jiri and Lenka asked airport officials, but no one knew anything about the Stanley Cup's arrival or its whereabouts.

Immediately, calls were made to the Hockey Hall of Fame and to the airline. It was quickly established that the Stanley Cup had not been lost or stolen but was, in fact, sitting in Toronto. The Stanley Cup, locked in its traveling case, had been checked through but, inexplicably, had not been loaded into the Special Services area of the plane for the flight to Kosice. Unknowingly, the Cup Keepers sat comfortably aboard the flight, oblivious to the fact that the Stanley Cup remained in Toronto while their plane took to the skies.

Jiri Bicek poses with the Cup for onlookers in Kosice, Slovakia.
Jiri Bicek poses with the Cup for onlookers in Kosice, Slovakia.
The crowd was getting restless. They wanted to see Jiri lift the Stanley Cup over his head. The inevitable delay prompted whispers. Officials and media grew suspicious at the delay. "Why are they not emerging with the Stanley Cup," asked a reporter, anxious to file his story. Just then, Jiri and the Cup Keepers stepped onto the stage in the town square.

The massive spire of St. Elizabeth's Cathedral towers above the town square. Nearby, sit St. Michael's Chapel, St. Urban's Tower with its magnificent fountain and the State Theatre. A stage sits in front of the extraordinary baroque-styled Immaculata Statue. Jiri stepped onto the stage first and made a brief comment to the thousands of fans. In his native tongue, he said, "The Stanley Cup is not here. I'm sorry, but it didn't make it. We're trying to find out why, but things happen sometimes." The crowd expressed its disappointment. "Awww!" Many whistled loudly, indicating their displeasure. Then, the Keepers of the Cup addressed the crowd in English, letting the assembled multitude know that the situation was regrettable but that the Stanley Cup would not be arriving in Kosice on Thursday. "There is nothing we can do right now. I feel as badly as you do, probably worse, but the Stanley Cup is back in Toronto. Unfortunately, it missed our flight," said Walt Neubrand of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "We're making plans right now for the Cup to be here tomorrow."

The Stanley Cup's appearance in Slovakia for the first time is a big story, but when it didn't arrive in Kosice as scheduled…that was massive news. The story became the lead item on television newscasts that evening. It was the topic of conversation with the entire population of Kosice. The next morning, it was the headline in the daily newspaper.

Meanwhile, Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils, Phil Pritchard at the Hockey Hall of Fame, Jiri Bicek plus the next intended recipients - Richard Smehlik and Patrik Elias - all negotiated the Cup's timing for the next few days to make certain everyone got their time with the Stanley Cup. "Jiri, you'll get the Cup tomorrow," the young Devil was told. Jiri smiled.

"Guys, I haven't eaten all day. Are you as hungry as me?" Jiri and his wife treated the boys from the Hockey Hall of Fame to a meal at a well-known local restaurant: they went through the McDrive-Thru for Slovakian Big Macs at McDonald's.

The Stanley Cup was scheduled to arrive at 1:45 Friday afternoon. Expectations again ran high in Kosice, but no one had an anxiety level any higher than Jiri Bicek. Standing in the arrivals area of the Kosice Airport, Bicek caught a glimpse of the Stanley Cup's case being wheeled towards him and breathed an audible sigh of relief. "Whew! I feel a whole lot better now, guys. Now we can have some fun!" A horde of media descended on Jiri and the Stanley Cup. "Why is it late?" "Where was it lost?" "Who had it?" "Guys, guys, guys," Jiri started. "The Stanley Cup was never lost. It was in Toronto and didn't make the flight, that's all. You've heard of people losing their luggage. Well, we just discovered it can happen to the Stanley Cup too." The journalists were looking for their story and got it. Jiri Bicek stickhandled the media like a veteran.

Jiri Bicek brought the Cup to a local hospital in Kosice, Slovakia.
Jiri Bicek brought the Cup to a local hospital in Kosice, Slovakia.
Jiri had a lot of plans for his original day with the Stanley Cup. He was able to reschedule some but had to cancel others. But Jiri insisted that one item on his agenda was not negotiable for rescheduling. He had read the story of a local sixteen-year-old boy who thought he had traditional cold symptoms but discovered, to his family's horror, that in fact, he had leukemia. Touched by what he had read, Jiri took the Stanley Cup to the oncology division of Kosice Hospital to help encourage the young man. He found a very receptive audience from the patients.

Bicek, who scored a goal in his first ever NHL game, then took the Stanley Cup to the town square in his hometown. The turnout, though down from seven thousand the previous day, still totalled five thousand, who cheered Bicek as he strode centre stage with the Stanley Cup over his head. No whistling this time - Kosice welcomed the Stanley Cup with a tremendous ovation, and thanked local export Bicek with cheers afforded champions. There had been plans for Jiri to sign autographs in the square, but the surging crowd had organizers concerned so, erring on the side of caution, abandoned that plan. Instead, Bicek signed items from his car, with security personnel handing him items to autograph.

The Stanley Cup sits on the hood of Bicek's Mazda 6.
The Stanley Cup sits on the hood of Bicek's Mazda 6.
Jiri and Lenka Bicek live with her grandmother when they return to Kosice during the summer months, although they have recently purchased an apartment in the city and will move there when it is ready next summer. Real estate is near impossible to purchase in Kosice, so to a tourist's eye, the city is block after block of apartment buildings. Jiri and his wife hosted family and friends at a party in the Hotel Slovan, a luxurious hotel in the centre of this eastern Slovakian city. The party continued well into the night, although the Stanley Cup had to leave at 3AM for its next destination - a visit with Richard Smehlik.

In the Stanley Cup Journal on Monday, we'll Czech in with both Richard Smehlik and Patrik Elias.

Kevin Shea is a Toronto-based hockey historian and journalist.

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