I saw the last game ever played in the original North American Hockey League. I was 9 years old on April 10, 1977, when the visiting Syracuse Blazers completed a four-game sweep of my hometown Maine Nordiques to capture the Lockhart Cup.
Within months, the league disbanded. And at some point in the intervening decades, the coveted Lockhart Cup went missing.
The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto would like to know what happened to it. Last summer, I corresponded with Katherine Pearce, collections registrar at the hall of fame.
“I’ve been asking my colleagues if they know anything about the whereabouts of the Lockhart Cup, and no one has any answers,” she wrote. (The Blazers apparently had a habit of misplacing trophies, although this one resurfaced.)
Pearce consulted with Phil Pritchard – the “Keeper of the Cup” (the guy in the white gloves who protects the NHL’s Stanley Cup) – who said the Lockhart Cup is one of “about three historical trophies that have disappeared,” she said.
Winning coach’s rec room
There’s a story I’ve read on the Internet that the Lockhart Cup, at least at one time, was in the possession of Danny Belisle, who was the Blazers’ head coach in 1977. Supposedly the trophy was in his basement rec room.
I tracked down Belisle’s son, Daniel, via LinkedIn (he has worked in hockey in the past but now is in real estate in Seattle). I explained my search for the cup and asked whether his father possessed it.
His response: “Not sure. I was 14 [when the Blazers won, presumably]. Will ask. Btw, who cares?”
I have not heard back from Daniel and my other inquiries have not led me to this hockey grail. But I can make a pretty good case for why anyone who appreciates hockey’s rich history, particularly in the United States, should care about the Lockhart Cup and, most important, who and what it represents.
The cup itself probably isn’t that valuable. It sits on a square, three-tier wooden base and stands between three and four feet tall, based on photos I have seen but don’t have permission to republish here. The base rises to four corner posts that support a cup topped with the figure of a hockey player.
Like most trophies, its value is mostly symbolic. The cup is named for Thomas “Tommy” Lockhart, whose contributions to U.S. hockey are monumental.
Hockey Hall of Fame inductee
Born in 1892, Lockhart first was responsible for promoting hockey in his native New York City in the 1930s.
He then founded the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, whose members included the Hershey Ba’rs (later Bears) from 1933 to 1938 and the Hershey Cubs (1938-39), and which essentially evolved into what is now the ECHL. The Reading Royals won the ECHL championship last year.
In 1937, Lockhart founded and served as the first president of the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States. Today, the organization is known as USA Hockey, the national governing body for the sport.
In the 1950s, he was the business manager for the NHL’s New York Rangers.
Lockhart was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1965 in its “builders” category; it’s the same category to which Hershey Bears legend Frank Mathers was elected in 1992.
Lockhart was among the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame’s inaugural inductees in 1973, along with the likes of Pennsylvania-born Hobey Baker, for whom the annual award recognizing college hockey’s best player is named.
The “Legends of Hockey” section of the Hockey Hall of Fame’s website includes a biographical sketch of Lockhart:
“Tommy Lockhart contributed to the development of amateur, professional, and international hockey in the United States for over four decades. His efficient organization and boundless enthusiasm for the game endeared him to many people in the hockey world.”
Hershey B’ars and a skating bear
Hockey historian Stan Fischler has called Lockhart “the key man in organized amateur hockey in the United States, responsible for more boys in the States taking up the game than anyone else.”
Lockhart wasn’t just efficient; he was a little eccentric. Floyd Conner, in his book “Hockey’s Most Wanted: The Top 10 Book of Wicked Slapshots, Bruising Goons, and Ice Oddities,” likened Lockhart to former baseball owner/showman Bill Veeck.
“Lockhart was known for his outrageous promotional ideas. In his first year as president of the Eastern Hockey League, Lockhart made up phony games to fill out the schedule. He sent the scores of 21 games that were never played to newspapers.”
He booked a bear from the circus to perform, on ice skates, during first-period intermission during a game between the Eastern league’s New York Rovers and the visiting Hershey B’ars.
“Shortly after taking the ice, the bear broke loose from its leash and went barreling, spinning, slipping, and sliding all around the rink before he was finally restrained and sedated,” according to the book “Hockey Stories On and Off the Ice.”
In 1973, the Eastern Hockey League split into two different leagues: the Southern Hockey League and the North American Hockey League. To honor Lockhart, the NAHL named its championship trophy after him.
The NAHL’s Johnstown (Pa.) Jets – in a season that inspired the movie “Slap Shot” – won the Lockhart Cup in 1975. The next year, the Philadelphia Firebirds hoisted the trophy.
Lockhart died in 1979, one year before the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. Olympic hockey team won a gold medal in Lake Placid. In large measure because of his foresight in creating what is now USA Hockey, the sport today is played in all 50 states.
There’s such a deep pipeline of talent that American hockey teams (male and female) regularly are threats to win medals in international competition.
Lockhart’s is a legacy worth remembering. It’s why I care about what happened to the Lockhart Cup.