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NHL: Niskanen celebrates Cup win with hometown

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Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen listens as Mike Bolt, Keeper of the Stanley Cup, describes how long the line of people is waiting outside Miners Memorial Arena. 2 / 8
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com NHL defenseman Matt Niskanen talks with members of the media in Miners Memorial Arena on Sunday. 3 / 8
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com Mountain Iron native and former Minnesota Duluth defenseman Matt Niskanen parades the Stanley Cup outside Virginia’s Miners Memorial Arena on Sunday for people who were unable to see it inside the arena. 4 / 8
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com Terry Kuusi of Hibbing (left) was one of hundreds of hockey fans waiting outside Miners Memorial Arena in Virginia to see Matt Niskanen and the Stanley Cup on Sunday. 5 / 8
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com Reed Larson, former Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl hockey coach, was the first person in line to see Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen and the Stanley Cup on Sunday at Miners Memorial Building. 6 / 8
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com The Kukowski family of Hibbing; Avery, 8, (from left), Sam, Ben, 7, Luke, 4, Paisley, 5 months, Matt; and NHL defenseman Matt Niskanen of the Washington Capitals pose with the Stanley Cup in Virginia’s Miners Memorial Arena on Sunday. 7 / 8
Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com Washington Capitals fan Ben Harkonen (left) slept in his car outside Virginia’s Miners Memorial Arena so as to be one of the first people in line to see Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen and the Stanley Cup on Sunday. 8 / 8

VIRGINIA — As a young boy timidly walked up to Washington Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen and the Stanley Cup on Sunday, he asked the former Blue Devils hockey star if he could touch the trophy.

"Sure, go ahead," Niskanen said.

"But isn't it bad luck?" the boy asked

"It's up to you," Niskanen replied.

The young aspiring NHLer decided he wouldn't take any chances and kept his hands to himself.

Niskanen, a standout for Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl in high school and Minnesota Duluth in college, no longer has to think about whether or not to touch the Stanley Cup, having won hockey's most prized possession in June with the Capitals.

On Sunday, Niskanen finally had his day — or more like 15 hours — with the Cup and he spent three of his precious few hours with it shaking hands and taking pictures with fans at Miners Memorial Building.

"It's a special, special place," Niskanen said of bringing the Stanley Cup home. "It means a lot to me. I spend my summers here. I plan to retire here. My kids will go to school here. This is home.

"I grew up playing here. To bring it right into this rink where I grew up playing in high school — I actually started playing here in peewees — it's a special, special feeling being on this floor."

The 31-year-old Niskanen just finished his 11th NHL season, having originally played for the Dallas Stars after spending two seasons with the Bulldogs (2005-07). It was with the Stars that he made his first run at the Cup, losing to the Detroit Red Wings in six games in the 2008 Western Conference finals. After getting traded to the Penguins in 2014 and signing an extension, he reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2013, only for Pittsburgh to get swept by the Boston Bruins.

Niskanen signed a seven-year deal with the Capitals as a free agent in 2014. He and his new team were bounced from the second round of the playoffs the first three seasons — losing twice to Pittsburgh — before breaking through this season and beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in seven games in the Eastern Conference final.

Finally in a Stanley Cup Final, Niskanen and the Capitals wasted minimal time beating the Vegas Golden Knights, clinching the first NHL championship for the Capitals in Game 5 in Las Vegas.

"The moment we won, jumping around like little kids, screaming with all my teammates, huddled around the net there, hugging everyone, that three or four minutes, however long it lasted ... I'll never forget that feeling," said Niskanen, who had eight goals and 30 assists in 92 games this season. "I lost my voice right away. I started crying and all that good stuff. It was quite the feeling."

Niskanen's day with the Cup began just past 10 a.m. Sunday after it spent Saturday in the Twin Cities with Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan.

Niskanen was allowed to have the Cup until midnight. Despite being 126 years old, the Cup has a curfew.

Midnight on Sunday was when Ben Harkonen arrived at Miners to get in line to see the Cup. The Hibbing native was prepared to camp out at the entrance to the rink, but being the only one there, he decided to sleep in his car.

"It's very important to be out here," said Harkonen, who has rooted for the Capitals for 10 years. "I've wanted to meet Niskanen, and it means the world to me to see the Stanley Cup."

Unfortunately for Harkonen, he overslept just a bit and wound up second in line behind former VMIB hockey coach Reed Larson, who lives just across the street from the rink.

He woke up and looked out his window around 6:45 a.m. to find Harkonen's car parked in the lot, so he grabbed some chairs and rushed to the rink to save a spot up front for him and his wife, Wendy.

They wanted to not only see the Cup, but to thank and congratulate the program's most storied alum.

"You can't really put it into words what he's meant to the program," Larson said of Niskanen. "It's the support he's given during the summers when it comes to the summer hockey program, financially with the donations he's made at the golf scramble every single year. You can't even put a dollar amount on it. It's to the point where it is priceless what he's meant to the program and what this is to the program right now. You're going to see the benefits reaped for years after this."

After posing for pictures and shaking hands at Miners, Niskanen was scheduled to take the Cup up to his lake home for a private reception. He then planned to bring it back out in public to some undisclosed locations later in the day.

In addition to friends and family, Niskanen and the Cup were followed Sunday by two Keepers of the Cup from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto — Mike Bolt and Howie Borrow. They make sure the No. 1 rule of the Cup is followed, which is to respect the trophy.

Fan can touch, hug and give it a kiss. Babies can take a nap in it, as one eight-week-old boy did ever so briefly on Sunday as his family posed for a picture.

What you can't do with the Cup, for example, is throw it in your swimming pool like former Detroit Red Wings goaltender Dominik Hasek once did. That's how one gets their day with the Cup cut short.

"A lot of other trophies, they don't even let you touch it. They hid behind glass. The Stanley Cup does not," said Bolt, who has been traveling with what he calls "the People's Trophy" for 19 years. "As we tell the fans, if you want to lift it, you got to go out and earn it just like Matt. You have to earn the right to hoist it. Maybe a few of Matt's friends and family might get to have a sip out of it later. Matt might put a couple beverages in it, share a sip out of it, but he's got to hold it."

See kid, you could have touched it.

Matt Wellens

College hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune covering the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs men's and women's teams, as well as the NCAA Division III programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior.

(218) 723-5317