Non-NHL teams competing for Stanley Cup?

TORONTO -- On the off chance this latest round of NHL bargaining doesn’t ultimately save the season, one wonders about the possibility of another year without the Stanley Cup being awarded.

It first happened in 1919 when the Spanish flu halted the championship series between Seattle and Montreal. Damn you, Spanish flu.

And then of course seven years ago the 2004-05 NHL season was never played, making it only the second time in history the Cup wasn’t awarded.

It was during that lockout year that a group of Toronto beer-leaguers took the NHL to court in the province of Ontario to seek clarification as to whether non-NHL teams could compete for the Stanley Cup.

As most people probably know, the NHL doesn’t own the Cup, it runs it. Big difference.

Lord Stanley of Preston, then the Governor General of Canada, donated the most famous trophy in sports way before the NHL ever existed.

"Whereas by Deed of gift executed in 1893 the Earl of Derby, then Governor-General of Canada, donated a challenge cup known as the Stanley Cup to be held from year to year by the champion hockey club of the Dominion of Canada...,’’ reads the original Stanley Cup agreement.

As far-fetched as the beer leaguers’ court case sounded, they actually were able to reach a settlement with the NHL while claiming semi-victory.

The settlement in February 2006, among other things, acknowledged that "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."

"We thought that we affirmed that the Cup doesn’t belong to the NHL but that it is a Cup that, when the NHL is operational, is devoted to the winner of that season,” Toronto lawyer Tim Gilbert, who represented the group, told ESPN.com this week. "If the season doesn’t take place, then we feel that at least we opened the door to the Cup being awarded to another team. The problem is that the trustees take a pretty dim view of anybody else receiving the Cup. So somebody could say it’s a pyrrhic victory. But it was certainly an issue that our clients as Canadians thought needed to be clarified, because it just offended them that the Cup was kind of sold to, or the propriety of, one organization."

So it’s up to the two trustees if there’s no NHL hockey this year to make that call. Enter longtime hockey men Dan O’Neill and Ian "Scotty" Morrison.

"There’s an agreement that says it’s not impossible for the trustees, in the event there’s no [NHL] competition, there’s a possibility they could make an adjustment so that there is one," O’Neill, who has been with the league 46 years (now a consultant to the league), told ESPN.com this week. "But that’s not going to happen. No matter what, it’s not going to happen that the competition is for anyone else other than the National Hockey League."

Morrison, a longtime Hockey Hall of Fame executive, echoed his fellow Cup trustee’s comment.

"There is only a set of teams that will challenge for the Stanley Cup, and that will be the players of the National Hockey League," Morrison told ESPN.com this week.

"It’s definitely at the discretion of the trustees," he added. "[We] are adamant. We have that much respect for the NHL players. There’s only one group of players that’s ever going to play for the Stanley Cup and that’s the NHL players."

Well, there you have it. The trustees could not be any clearer. The Stanley Cup is for NHLers only, even if Lord Stanley himself might have had a different opinion on that.