OTTAWA -- Canadian winter days get no better than this: a few degrees below freezing, a crisp breeze that chills the cheeks and a radiant sun in a cloudless sky.
It was a truly special afternoon on Thursday at Rideau Hall, the official residence of Canada's governor general, Queen Elizabeth II's representative in this country. David Johnston, the nation's 28th governor general since the Confederation in 1867, soon would welcome two sterling guests, six Hockey Hall of Fame legends and hundreds of Canadians from all walks of life.
The occasion was the homecoming to Ottawa of the Stanley Cup, two days before the 125th anniversary of the announcement that it would be donated to Canada by Frederick Arthur Stanley, 16th Earl of Derby, Lord Stanley of Preston, Canada's sixth governor general.
Video: Original and familiar Cups arrive at Rideau Hall
On the grounds of Rideau Hall is what is said to be the oldest rink in North America. A few skaters were enjoying the now-refrigerated glassy surface as two vans pulled up with a group of men whose names are engraved a combined 26 times as players on the Stanley Cup, which was shiny and warm indoors.
Mike Bossy, Paul Coffey, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Bernie Parent and Bryan Trottier were almost the star attractions on this day, but not quite. That honor went to the Stanley Cup -- two Cups, in fact.
Stunning in its simple beauty was the original Cup, a sterling silver bowl that was commissioned in London in 1892 by Lord Stanley, designed and produced for 10 guineas, roughly $50. This priceless trophy, in effect a native of Ottawa, given the governor general's residence, sits in the vault of the former downtown Toronto bank that is the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Standing beside it was its taller, more familiar cousin, the multibanded, generously engraved, beautifully imperfect Stanley Cup, the most cherished trophy in professional hockey.
A group of young hockey players, in jerseys and off school on March break, milled about the Tent Room, a magnificent, bright place at Rideau Hall, these children the present and future of hockey connected on this day to the game's glorious past.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly described the Stanley Cup as "our rock star ... the most popular person in the room" wherever it goes. And it was fitting that he personified the trophy, because it is much more to hockey than engraved silver.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson got a laugh when he said he had photographed his name on the Cup; that the Jim and Jimmy Watson engraved represent a member of the 1974 and 1975 Philadelphia Flyers was an inconvenient detail.
A giant portrait of Lord Stanley of Preston hung on a wall facing the afternoon's speakers, roughly the length of a rink's neutral zone across the room, staring directly at the bowl he donated 125 years ago and the modern version that towered over it.
Hockey, Johnston said, clearly is in the DNA of Canadians, something that in many ways defines the population. And it is something of far greater importance than goals and saves, wins and losses.
"It indicates that we know how to live with winter," he said during a quiet chat, the day's formalities concluded. "We enjoy winter with hockey and skiing. Hockey is a game that teaches so many skills. It teaches teamwork, it teaches a drive for excellence, it teaches speed -- it's the fastest game on earth because you're on skates. You can't go and play 60 minutes, we're now using four lines of forwards and three defense pairings. While you have an individual quality to the game, nothing is achieved without teamwork in hockey and my heavens, is that ever a great lesson about how we conduct our lives as citizens."
Just when will Canada reclaim the Stanley Cup, which has not been won by a team from this country since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993?
"This is the year!" he said with a laugh.
The governor general was born in Sudbury, in northern Ontario, and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, on the shores of Lake Superior. It was in the Soo, "where you learn to skate before you learn to walk," he said, that Phil and Tony Esposito grew up, setting off into the NHL and ultimately to the Hall of Fame.
Johnston more than simply knows of the Esposito brothers, he was their teammate.
"Phil and Tony and Lou Nanne and I were teammates on an Ontario juvenile team that won an under-17 championship," he said. "Tony was the backup goaltender and people say to me, 'C'mon, Tony Esposito was just a backup?' Well, Tony was 14 or 15 on a 17-and-under team. We knew at that age that he was going to be good."
The day also served to unveil a new 25-cent Canadian coin featuring the Stanley Cup. The Royal Canadian Mint produced the coin with the Queen on the face and the Cup on the reverse, framed by players in vintage and modern equipment.
The mint was happy to exchange visitors' pocket-change quarters for versions of the new one that is expected to be hugely popular with collectors, the vast majority of the Cup coins unlikely ever to be in circulation. It's a special moment indeed when you see a half-dozen NHL legends almost frantically rummaging through their pockets, foraging for quarters or trying to borrow one from a friend to make the exchange.
Children and adults swarmed the original and modern Stanley Cups for photos and a study of the names engraved, those of the legends and the journeymen alike. The six icons mingled happily, signing autographs and posing with fans as they made a long, slow stroll past the patient queue of hundreds that snaked through the residence and almost out the door into the chill, everyone coming to welcome the Stanley Cup home.
Outside, Trottier asked Bossy, his former New York Islanders linemate, whether he'd acquired a new quarter. Bossy had a handful of them, but he appreciated the offer.
"Just like Trots to take care of his winger," he said with a wink.
By now, more people were skating on the sparkling Rideau Hall rink, a Canadian picture postcard if there ever was one, as the legends prepared to head off the grounds.
"At this time of the year, I'm on that rink almost every day," Johnston said.
Out for a twirl alone?
"No, I usually go with the aides-de-camp. And I tell them they'd better not body-check me," he said of his assistants with a grin, "because I handle their promotions."