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The Cup to the Rescue With floods ravaging the Czech Republic, four Red Wings players turned a visit by the Stanley Cup into a relief mission

NHL players entrusted with the Stanley Cup over the years haven't
always justified their custodianship. Clark Gillies of the New
York Islanders fed his dog from hockey's Holy Grail in 1980. A
Pittsburgh Penguin sent it to the bottom of Mario Lemieux's
swimming pool 11 years later. After several members of the '40
New York Rangers used it as a chamber pot, the franchise had to
wait 54 years before the fates let it win the Cup again--whereupon
Mark Messier took it to a strip club.

But the appeal of the Cup is that it belongs to the players, for
better or worse, and last week delivered an example of how good
that better can be. Citizens of the Czech Republic had just begun
to assess the toll taken by the worst flooding in 500 years: at
least a dozen people dead and 200,000 more driven from their
homes, numbers especially large for a nation of roughly 10
million. Then, as floodwaters began to recede, the Cup arrived
for its previously scheduled tour through the towns that had
produced four of the Detroit Red Wings who won it in June. The
homecoming players--defensemen Jiri Fischer, 22, and Jiri Slegr,
31, forward Ladislav Kohn, 27, and freshly retired goaltender
Dominik Hasek, 37--might have let these circumstances rain, almost
literally, on their parades. Instead they turned each appearance
into a rally that was equal parts fund-raiser and
consciousness-raising session. "We want to drink champagne from
the Cup again, like we did the night we won it," Hasek said upon
greeting the trophy in Prague on Aug. 14. "At the same time we
have to think about the people who lost their houses, about the
people who are in deep trouble. I think this may be the first
time the Cup is in a place where the situation is so difficult,
and we want to use it to help."

Given the size of the country, the apocalyptic results of a
fortnight of steady rain were almost certain to touch at least
some of the 60-plus Czechs who graced NHL rosters last season.
Floodwaters inundated Strakonice, the hometown of Calgary Flames
goalie Roman Turek, and Pisek, home to Tampa Bay Lightning
defenseman Stan Neckar. UNESCO ranks the Renaissance town of
Cesky Krumlov as a world heritage site--second only to Venice--for
its perfectly preserved historic center, to be sure, not for
having produced Penguins defenseman Josef Melichar. But Cesky
Krumlov, like a skein of other towns along the Vlatava River and
its tributaries, was briefly a Bohemian Atlantis.

On Aug. 14 the Cup arrived in Prague, where a hastily erected
"wall of hope," made of interlocking pieces of aluminum, had
spared the Old Town Square. (Washington Capital Jaromir Jagr's
subterranean sports bar was also saved.) The Cup's next stop, in
Uherske Hradiste with Kohn, in the southeast, also escaped the
worst. But a day later the Red Wings came face-to-face with the
flooding, in Fischer's hometown of Beroun, just southwest of the
Czech capital. There the Berounka River had spilled its banks and
left Hus Square under two feet of water. Floodwaters stood even
higher inside the rink where Fischer had learned to skate. "It's
not about the Stanley Cup right now," Fischer said. "We're happy
it's here, but we have to look at things from the perspective of
people whose lives have changed way more than ours."

By Friday, as Slegr chauffeured the Cup in his Mercedes E320 to
his hometown of Litvinov near the German border (Stanley
luxuriated in the back, strapped in by a seat belt), the Red
Wings had begun passing collection boxes in each town. In
Litvinov the four went forward with a previously planned auction
of autographed team pictures, jerseys, gloves and sticks, but
replaced the original beneficiary--a fund to build playgrounds for
kids--with the newly homeless. When the bidding lagged, Hasek sent
a couple of employees of his Dominator clothing company into the
crowd to goose the action and wound up paying for most of the
items, including one of his signed goalie sticks, which went for
28,000 Czech koruny--almost $900.

All this was prelude to an 8 1/2-hour extravaganza on Sunday in
Hasek's hometown of Pardubice, a safe 60 miles east of Prague.
Bands pumped out rock music, cheerleaders twisted, models swanned
in Dominator wear, and Red Wings highlights played across a big
screen. Lest the crowd forget, every hour organizers reprised a
five-minute video montage with scenes of the floodwater
destruction. The Wings auctioned another $20,000 in merchandise,
and Hasek cut deals with the performers to donate their
appearance fees to the cause. Then he promised to match any money
raised--but no less than the $100,000 team bonus he received for
winning the Stanley Cup. He also challenged the NHL to chip in,
which it did. The league said it is pledging at least $10,000 to
the relief efforts.

The Czech Red Wings chose to confront a natural phenomenon with a
kind of supernatural one, for Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley's Cup
has always had a mystique to match its size (35 1/4 inches),
weight (35 pounds) and tradition (109 years). Perhaps that's
because many players who have never won the Cup refuse on
superstitious principle to touch it until they do. Or because the
winners always return the Cup to the Hall of Fame in Toronto so
it might be awarded anew the following season. (Major League
Baseball, the NFL and the NBA all present a new trophy each year,
and always to the owner of the championship team.) Or because
engravers add the name of every player on each championship team.
(When a silver-plated band on the base of the trophy fills up,
it's detached and shipped to the Cup's curators at the Hall of
Fame, whereupon a blank band is added to the base.) Nothing gets
invoked more often than the Cup when players demand a trade or
vow to play on or to hang it up. Hasek's recent decision to turn
down an $8 million contract offer and retire can be traced
directly to the Cup: In July 2001 he forced the Buffalo Sabres to
trade him to Detroit because he wanted a better shot at winning
his first Cup; then he quit because, having won one, he
considered his career complete.

Steffi Graf never took her Wimbledon plates home to Bruhl to
frisbee them through the streets. The Cup, by contrast, is the
players' to share with their fans. The NHL permits every member
of a championship team to spend a day doing whatever he pleases
with the Cup. (After Messier took Stan the Man to that strip
joint, the league added the stipulation "within reason.") Czechs
have gotten used to the Cup's summering in their country. Simply
put, an NHL team doesn't win the Cup anymore without someone from
the nation that took the gold medal in the first Olympic hockey
competition that included pros (in Nagano in '98) and has won
three of the last four world championships (all without Hasek or

Where does the Czechs' strength come from? Years of playing the
mighty Soviets--to whom, some Czechs will tell you, they were
occasionally obliged to lose for political reasons--led the
national team to develop a defensive but opportunistic style
marked by the counterattack. And even though Slovakia's split
from the old Czechoslovakia, in 1993, diminished the pool of
talent, the Czech Republic's relatively sparse population
encourages a cooperative style. "We think like a team, not as
individuals," says forward Robert Reichel of the Toronto Maple
Leafs. "When we play, we pull together."

That attitude may be part of the national character. Long before
Dominik, the Czechs produced another Hasek, a writer named
Jaroslav, whose most beloved invention is a soldier named Svejk.
Though an ordinary grunt in the Austro-Hungarian army, Svejk
confounds the powerful with guile, collusion and obstinacy. He
foreshadowed the way the Czechs play hockey: with
resourcefulness, an all-for-one-and-one-for-all spirit, and those
sudden counterattacks. Last week each of those traits--and perhaps
even the sometimes maddening Czech tendency to overpass--was on
full display.

The Stanley Cup has long been a rainmaker of sorts, if you'll
pardon the expression. The NHL puts it on tour for 300 days a
year, and since 1998 the league has collected more than $5
million in donations to Hockey Fights Cancer from those who have
flocked to see it. That fund-raising has been the work of the
game's establishment more than its players. Yet even if the money
raised last week covers only a small portion of a bill expected
to exceed $2 billion, fans in the Czech Republic and beyond
rediscovered guys they thought they already knew: four handsomely
paid migrant workers, each of whom realized that there, but for
the grace of refrigeration, go I.

COLOR PHOTO: LUKAS MACHALINEK/CTK/AP HIGH AND DRY Kohn raised the Cup in Uherske Hradiste, and a rescue team lifted some of its own to safety in Prague.


COLOR PHOTO: ALEXANDRA MEJNKOVA/CTK/AP MIXED EMOTIONS While Hasek, Slegr, Fischer and Kohn tried to buoy spirits in Pardubice, police floated through Terezin.


COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS (LEFT) TOUCH OF CLASS A triumphant Hasek fulfilled his dream in June and shared his good fortune at a Pardubice hospital.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO [See caption above]

"I think this may be the first time the Cup is in a place where
the situation is so difficult," says Hasek, "and we want to use
it to help."