By Kevin Oklobzija
PITTSBURGH — His stops in hockey read not like a list of the NHL’s Original Six cities, but rather as answers to the question,”They were a hockey team?”
Teams such as the Memphis River Kings and the Worcester IceCats. And the Huntington (West Virginia) Blizzard. Even the Chicago Cheetahs, a roller hockey team that was owned in part by NBA legend George Mikan.
This is not a path that says the Stanley Cup awaits.
And yet on Friday, Rochester native J.C. Ihrig played host to the most hallowed trophy in sports. His Day with the Cup was spent with family and friends — many of whom he met because of hockey — in Pittsburgh, where he works as the assistant equipment manager for the Penguins.
“Who’d have thought it,” Ihrig said. “We never saw this coming.”
Certainly not in the early and mid-1990s, when he was in Memphis. Or Huntington. And definitely not the previous 19 years, when he worked as an equipment representative for CCM. He outfitted Stanley Cup champions along the way, but he was never part of the winning team.
Until last season. Before joining CCM, his goal had always been to work as an equipment manager for an NHL team. When the opportunity to join the Penguins arose late in the summer of 2016, he decided to fulfill that long-ago dream.
Ten months later, he was taking part in the celebration on the ice of Bridgestone Arena in downtown Nashville, sharing the moment with Penguins players, coaches and family members after the clinching Game 6 victory.
During the on-ice party, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby brought the Stanley Cup to Ihrig’s son, Henry, who at 8 isn’t all that much taller than the Cup itself.
The memories came pouring back — and a little Johnny Walker Blue Label came pouring out — on Friday during Ihrig’s Day with the Cup. Each member of the winning team — from the head coach to the captain to the equipment and training staffs to the team doctors — gets one day with the trophy.
The festivities began at Lincoln Elementary School in Pittsburgh, where Henry was suddenly the most popular new kid in the history of show-and-tell. Since Ihrig’s hiring by the Penguins took place late last summer, it made more sense for his his son and wife, Amy, to stay at their home in Greenville, S.C., rather than uproot just as school was starting there.
Now they’re all in Pittsburgh, so they brought the Stanley Cup to Henry’s school, where around 450 students saw it up close and personal.
“The kids were running around, ‘Lord Stanley’s coming, Lord Stanley’s coming,’ ” said Ihrig, 48, who got his start in hockey as a stick boy, then equipment manager, with the Rochester Americans in the 1980s. “We showed it to a crossing guard and she started crying; just bawling.”
Then it was off to various places in the city, including PNC Park, home of the Pirates, before the private party.
Friends from South Carolina and Florida and Rochester were there. His brother and family from Rochester came down. His cousin and family from Massachusetts drove in. His parents, Diane and John, married 52 years, came up from Florida. Friends of friends were there.
“Watching everybody’s reaction was so fun,” he said. “It’s the greatest trophy in sports.”
Even the owner of Ihrig’s favorite Pittsburgh pizza place, Bito’s, stopped by with a couple employees. They poured a bag or shredded mozzarella into the Cup. A lot of beverages have been sipped and guzzled from Lord Stanley. A lot of food has been eaten from the Cup, including ice cream by Henry Ihrig.
But until Friday, mozzarella had never filled the bowl, according to Mike Bolt, Keeper of the Cup for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
“That’s a first,” he said.
The Day with the Cup was memorable indeed for Ihrig, but the more awe-inspiring moment may come during the season, after the names of Penguins personnel have been engraved.
“Probably when I see my name on there, I’ll be pretty proud,” he said.
Shortly before midnight on Friday, Ihrig carried the Stanley Cup out to the car, escorted by Bolt, for the trip back to the hotel. They were off to the downtown Marriott.
“We walked through the lobby, went up the elevator and I set it on his bed,” Ihrig said, “and my Day with the Cup was done.”
The memories will last a lifetime.