Blyth man was one of a handful of Stanley Cup engravers
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Very often the life of Ernie Phillips from just north of Blyth ran on an annual cycle, coinciding with a number of different seasons.
Whether it was the hockey season, curling or skiing seasons or the fiscal year, many of Phillips’ customers presented awards or year-end gifts on an annual basis, which is where an engraver comes in.
And Phillips, who lives on Moncrieff Road just north of Blyth with his wife Emily, has made his mark on some pretty notable seasons.
He says he’d hear from the same customers every year, eventually knowing when a specific sales company would hold its year-end awards banquet, or when a curling club would present its annual bonspiel trophy. He would get to know his customers and consider many of them friends.
One big customer would come calling year after year: the National Hockey League and its famed Stanley Cup.
For over a quarter-century, Phillips, living in Montreal at the time, would lend his hand to engraving the winning team’s name on the collar of the Stanley Cup. Between the 1940s and the late 1970s, when he last engraved one of the most famous trophies in sports, Phillips was one of only a handful of people authorized to engrave the cup.
During this time, he would also work on several of the NHL’s annual awards, such as the Hart Memorial Trophy (most valuable player), the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (most sportsmanlike), the Calder Memorial Trophy (rookie of the year) and the Conn Smythe Trophy (most valuable player in the playoffs) to name a few. The Conn Smythe Trophy is Phillips’ favourite, he says. The trophy, which relies heavily on Maple Leaf Gardens for its design, is the most beautiful trophy Phillips says he ever worked on.
Phillips also remembers weeks of cursing and long days in the years he would work on the 15-inch miniature cups awarded to every player – from “the water boy on down” as Phillips remembers it – when a team wins the Stanley Cup.
The cups, which usually numbered over 40 for a full team, would often adorn the young family’s home in Montreal, stored under beds and baby cribs for safety, after Phillips’ shop had been broken into several times.
On the Stanley Cup, the winning team is engraved along the collar, which runs just under the top – the cup portion – of the trophy, which is what Phillips would engrave by hand. On the bands of the cup, the names of players on winning teams are engraved, but they’re done by a punch and not by hand.
One of Phillips’ more memorable brushes with Lord Stanley’s Cup was, essentially creating it in 1969.
After nearly 80 years of being hoisted (and abused), the NHL decided to retire the original cup to the Hockey Hall of Fame and commissioned Carl Peterson to build an exact replica. Phillips and his boss Fred Light were hired to engrave the new bowl and were ordered to replicate the original exactly.
This was tricky, Phillips said, because in the early days the original cup often didn’t make it much further than the nearest tavern after a team would win it. Frustrated that their names weren’t yet engraved on the cup, players would sometimes, by way of a pen knife or any other sharp object they could find, take matters into their own hands.
Phillips and Light engraved the new cup, complete with players’ names scratched in. This cup is now the Stanley Cup today’s hockey fans know and love; the trophy that gets hoisted annually by way of playoffs, which begin every April.
After engraving the cup for over 20 years, Phillips and Emily eventually moved to their current home on Moncrieff Road, so when the company Phillips worked for was slated to engrave the cup one last time before passing it along to another engraver, the collar made a trip to the Phillips home – but only for a few hours.
Phillips remembers that day, as two men drove from Montreal to Blyth with the collar, awaiting Phillips’ steady hand. Phillips took the cup to his basement workshop for a few hours and engraved the season’s winners, the Montreal Canadiens, on the collar before the men continued through to Windsor, bringing the cup to the next company that would handle the trophy.
“They didn’t even stay for supper,” Emily said.
The men had car trouble that day, so some friends of the Phillips family – amateur mechanics as Phillips remembers them – helped get the car back on the road, although it would only make it to Elmira before it needed proper professional attention.
Phillips was 15 when he decided he was going to leave school, but even by that point, he knew he had an artistic knack.
“I knew I wanted to be an artist or an architect,” Phillips said. “I was really good at drawing – cartooning and the like.”
He turned heads in school with his skills, but one day he turned heads for the wrong reasons and his dreams were dashed.
In art class, Phillips was working on a water colour painting of a vase full of beautiful blue roses that sat on the teacher’s desk. But, to a chorus of laughter from his classmates, Phillips was told that the roses were actually pink. That day he discovered he was colourblind and would likely never be an artist.
Then, following what Phillips calls a dispute with one of his teachers, he left school to work just ahead of his 16th birthday.
He began as a messenger boy, helping to deliver trophies for an engraver, when one day his boss, Fred Light, asked him if he could draw.
Phillips remembers the man dropping a copy of the Montreal Gazette on the table and asking the young man to replicate the newspaper’s flag. He did a good job and was given a second test, which he again passed with flying colours.
After impressing the man in charge, Phillips was put on track for an apprenticeship and three years later he was engraving items, officially starting his career in 1949.
He worked for Light for 19 years in Montreal and would eventually strike out on his own, working independently for another 10 before moving to the Blyth area.
During that time, Phillips worked on a number of memorable projects. He’s engraved the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup, the Brier Trophy (for the winner of the annual Canadian men’s curling championship) and countless other accolades for ski clubs, curling clubs and hockey teams. He also worked on beer steins for a number of clients, including a local Irish rugby team and the Royal Canadian Air Force.
One of Phillips’ most memorable creations, and definitely his most challenging, was a pair of Canadian maple carvings he completed for Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau as a gift for the Chinese government.
Chinese words, he said, needed to be engraved with such accuracy and sophistication that it tested his nerves. The smallest deviation could change the word entirely.
While Phillips’ successes are many, there were definitely some jobs he hated to see. Silverware was one Phillips never liked engraving. Very difficult and intricate, he said, it wasn’t his favourite pastime.
It was in 1968 that he married Emily Smith. They would have two children, Karen and Leslie and are now grandparents to four.
In the late 1970s, the Phillips family moved to Huron County. Emily had gone long enough no longer fulfilling her calling as a nurse, for a variety of reasons, and they decided they needed to move to Ontario for that to happen.
Ernie and Emily had always wanted to move into a rural setting to raise their family, but they originally had their eyes on a Scottish farming community along the Ottawa River. However, with the changing language laws, they wanted to move to rural Ontario.
Emily found a job as an obstetrical nurse in Wingham and they moved to their current location where Ernie would continue engraving out of their Moncrieff Road home.
The Phillips family settled in well in the Blyth area and while Emily plied her trade just north of their home, Ernie continued working, but also giving back to the community.
For decades, Ernie would engrave annual awards and sports medals for Blyth Public School free of charge and he has been a member of the Blyth Lions Club for over 30 years.
As a member of the club, Ernie has spent decades penning membership certificates for new Lions and continues to this day. If someone has joined the Lions in the last 25-30 years, there’s a good chance the name on their membership certificate was written by the same hand that engraved the Stanley Cup.
Early last month, Phillips was among a group of locals honoured by the Ministry of Citizenship, Immigration and International Trade with an Ontario Volunteer Service Award for his time with the Lions Club.