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'A bit surreal': First female 'Cup Keeper' talks journey with hockey's holy grail

Miragh Bitove vividly remembers her first time seeing the Stanley Cup.

She was a teenager. A cousin was visiting from out of town. Her dad suggested they head to the Hockey Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto and take a look.

When the pair hit the top step of the staircase leading to the sport's silver chalice, Bitove was in awe.

"Nothing like it," she recalled. "There's a glow."

An art history and museum management major, Bitove went on to work as a Hall of Fame post-secondary intern in 2003 before parlaying that into a job as an archivist at the venue.

Years later, she's taken another massive leap — as the first woman in the "Cup Keeper" role on the annual celebration tour.

Bitove, her white gloves on whenever there's a chance she might touch the trophy, hit the road with colleagues last summer, crisscrossing North America as the Vegas Golden Knights basked in the glory of their victory.

"We see a bit of everything," Bitove said. "From wedding-sized parties right down to potlucks in grandma's garage. It's great watching people's natural reactions.

"Incredibly special."

What's also special is Bitove blazing a trail handling the Cup.

The mother of three — two boys and a girl — doesn't want special treatment. She also understands the attention in a sport that, while beginning to change, has been dominated by men for the better part of a century.

"A bit surreal," Bitove said of being the first woman in the job. "That part doesn't really enter into my train of thought.

"When you go out on these trips, you get some sad faces in the house. I've always said, 'I want to go out there and travel so that other girls can see me working in hockey.'"

Bitove has also turned some heads on those gruelling journeys that can last 10 or 11 days, often from before dawn until well past midnight.

"If I'm in my (Hall of Fame) blazer it's, 'Oh, I didn't know they made that blazer for women,'" said the Toronto native. "And that's great ... I'm glad to be out there and have people see it."

Phil Pritchard — the Hall of Fame's vice-president and the "Keeper of the Cup" — remembers when Bitove first arrived in the building.

"She had all the interest, all the background, everything that we're looking for," he said. "When you get someone like that, you don't want to lose them."

Qualifications and passion aside, Bitove also has the game in her blood. While never a hockey player herself, the family tree includes great uncle Ted Kennedy, who won the Cup five times with the Toronto Maple Leafs between 1945 and 1951.

"Hockey was sort of in my periphery," she said looking back. "In my grandmother's house was a giant portrait of my uncle Ted in game action — black and white, beautiful photo.

"I walked (into the Hall of Fame) actually looking for information on my uncle Ted. It organically sprouted from there."

Bitove, who along with her husband can be found in community rinks most nights, and her colleagues are tasked with taking care of the Cup every moment it's on the road. The team atmosphere and camaraderie is crucial, especially on those long stretches away from home.

"That hockey family environment, she brings it to work every day," Pritchard said. "She fits the perfect mould for the Hockey Hall of Fame."

It's where Bitove belongs.

"Qualified to do exactly what she's doing," Pritchard added. "If that falls under the arc of being the first woman on the road with the Cup, so be it."

And when she isn't getting hundreds of pictures taken at barbecues or community centres alongside the Cup in small towns and big cities, Bitove works with other artifacts to tell the game's story.

"Every new item that comes into the museum comes through my desk, so I'm writing the history of hockey," she explained. "Fifty years from now people can go back and see what the Hockey Hall of Fame had to say."

Bitove has spoken to her seven-year-old daughter — the only girl on the little one's co-ed hockey team — about what mom is up to.

"I always tell her, 'You've got to double down, work hard and prove that you belong,'" said Bitove, who's equally proud to have her boys, ages nine and 11, witness a woman in this role. "When I go on the road ... I'm doing it so other people can see me working in hockey."

That journey started more than two decades ago.

The Hockey Hall of Fame used to parade the Cup a short distance back to the museum from Toronto's Union Station at the conclusion of every summer tour.

Back in 2003, that event happened to fall on Bitove's first day as an intern.

"Phil Pritchard goes, 'Oh, just hold on. I'll be right back. I have to do this parade,'" she said. "I looked out the window of our offices and I saw him parading down with the Stanley Cup.

"I thought, 'Where am I? This is crazy.'"

Now she's one of the select few sporting the white gloves — Cup in hand.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 22, 2024.

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press