The Keeper of the Stanley Cup's role in shaping hockey lore

The NHL postseason is steeped in tradition: playoff beards, post-game handshakes, and high-stick salutes to teams' loyal fans.

Yet there is one ritual that eclipses them all.

"You don't touch the Stanley Cup until you've earned it," said Philip Pritchard, vice president and curator of the Hockey Hall of Fame. "It's an unwritten rule, but it's one of the best rules in sport."

And it's a rule that he, too, follows as Keeper of the Cup.

Pritchard is responsible for ensuring the 132-year-old Stanley Cup remains intact -- give or take a few dents -- while it travels from charity appearances to championship celebrations. But whenever he touches the treasured trophy, he does so wearing white gloves.

In true hockey fashion, Pritchard's signature accessory has now become yet another layer of Stanley Cup lore.

LIKE MANY CANADIANS, Pritchard grew up playing hockey, with dreams of hoisting the Stanley Cup in victory. When he was a kid, he and his dad visited the Canadian National Exhibition to admire the trophy on display.

"I didn't touch it the first time I saw it either," he said.

Pritchard soon realized he didn't have the skills to win the Cup, so he went after the next best thing. In 1988, at age 27, he started working at the Hockey Hall of Fame, cataloging the facts and fables of the sport. But it wasn't long before he had a hand in making hockey history of his own.

In 1993, Pritchard joined a call with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to discuss ideas for improving the Stanley Cup presentation. "We thought, 'How do we do this in a way that even elevates what the Stanley Cup means?'" Pritchard said. After Bettman suggested a red carpet, Pritchard introduced the concept of the white gloves. The commissioner was intrigued.

"He had asked, 'What are you talking about with the white gloves?'" Pritchard remembered. The curator then explained that gloves are a staple for many museum stewards, as oils from the skin can damage delicate pieces from the past.

"To handle an artifact with [your] hands is just wrong in the museum world," Pritchard said. "We don't go anywhere without our white gloves."

While the league's 3-foot, 35-pound sterling silver chalice is far from fragile, the gloves, for Pritchard, are about respect. He says Bettman was sold.

The white gloves made their debut at one of the most memorable Stanley Cup Finals in NHL history: 1994's Game 7 between the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers' 3-2 victory broke what many believed to be a franchise curse, giving New York its first championship in 54 years.

"The red carpet was rolled out onto the ice. A voice came over the monitor to the crowd and then said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, the Stanley Cup,'" Pritchard recalled. "The sound of the fans in the Garden was so loud, I thought we were going to go through the floor."

As the Rangers celebrated, Pritchard and his Hall of Fame colleague Craig Campbell carried the Cup onto the ice, both clad in official black suit jackets that set off their stark white gloves. MSG Network analyst John Davidson took notice.

"These guys have white gloves on carrying the Stanley Cup!" Davidson said. "That is precious. It's beautiful!"

And it's a scene that Pritchard and Campbell have enacted at each Final ever since. "I think that white gloves have become synonymous with the Stanley Cup," Pritchard said.

The gloves have become synonymous with the curators, too.

"Everywhere we go, people expect us to have the white gloves on, whether we're with the Stanley Cup or not," Pritchard said. "I go to the bathroom and someone will go, 'Where's your white gloves?'"

If Pritchard did don gloves for every occasion, he would have quickly run out of space to store them. Each pair he's ever worn while bearing the Cup has been tucked away in a T-shirt drawer or stashed among his socks.

"I guess that's the curator side of me," he said. "Every pair has a story, and if they could talk, it'd be a great chapter in a book."

WHEN IT COMES to hockey history, the latest chapter is still being written, though it has already deviated from the familiar script.

The Florida Panthers have taken a 3-0 lead over the Edmonton Oilers in this year's Final. They'll have to win one more game in Alberta to claim the title . Pritchard would typically wait with the Cup offsite until this crucial point in the series. "They don't want the Cup in the building if it's not going to be won," he explained.

But before puck drop for Game 1, the Cup made a surprise appearance -- one of the few times it has been brought out early since the 1960s. Though Pritchard hinted this could be the start of a new tradition, many players stuck to the game's long standing lore.

"I tried not to look at it too much," Panthers defenseman Gus Forsling said. "Just trying to stay focused on the game."

Florida captain Sasha Barkov also chimed in: "Same here."

Forsling and Barkov's efforts may pay off, with the Panthers taking home the franchise's first title. Yet the Oilers could still rally to win it all and bring the Cup back to Canada for the first time in more than 30 years.

No matter the victor, the Keeper of the Cup will present his prize with pride, acknowledging each member of the winning team's passage from man to legend.

"As we walk out with our gloves on, their gloves are being thrown off," Pritchard said. "Now they've earned that right to touch the Stanley Cup with their bare hands as they become a Stanley Cup champion."

ESPN E60's Mike Farrell contributed to this story.