Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Octopus Lobbing * *(but were afraid to ask)
Sports fans are a suspicious lot; from playoff beards, to periods of celibacy, to items of clothing that can’t be washed (ever), there are traditions and unwritten rules in every sport and for every team. One of the most mysterious (and according to SOME, the most disgusting), is use of the lucky octopus by (my beloved) the NHL Detroit Red Wings. (It bears noting, that, for my part, I am neither from Michigan nor have I ever lived there. I chose my fandom as a child in the early 80s, when there was no local team with which to gift my loyalty. However, my hockey cred is sound. The first time I kicked my mother in utero was at a Houston Arrows game in 1974, while the Great Gordie Howe was on the ice. She swore I’d be a goalie. And I thought she loved me.)
If you have seen a Detroit hockey game, you may or may not have spotted, flying high over the crowd, a lone octopus. Having been launched by a furtive fan, the cephalopod arcs over the glass to fall slimy on the ice. “Why the hell did they do that,” you may ask. The legend goes thusly…
Octopus Pickup – Photo by Rick Osentoski – USA Today
Back in the early days of the NHL, there were far fewer teams. In the 1951-52 season, for example, there were only 6: Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers, and of course the aforementioned Detroit Red Wings. These teams are referred to as “The Original 6”. Today, they are the venerable legacy teams, Detroit, alone has faithfully appeared at the playoffs for the last 25 consecutive seasons. During the grindhouse days of the early NHL, when helmets were for pansies and pads were non-existent unless you were a goalie, these teams were the only show in town. The standard season consisted of a mere 70 games, compared to today’s 82 per team. The playoff season hosted 2 best of 7 series, today there are 12 matchups before the final. And therein lies the legend.
Theoretically, in that spring of 1952, it would only take the Red Wings 8 games to win the coveted Cup of Lord Stanley. Two brothers, Detroit fishmongers Pete and Jerry Cusimano thought, “8 games, 8 legs…OCTOPUS!” On April 15, 1952, Game 1 of the playoffs, they flung the first octopus onto the ice at The Old Red Barn. The angels sang and the Red Wings went on to sweep the Leafs in 4, then do the same to the Canadiens. They didn’t just win The Cup, they were totally undefeated. Goalie Terry Sawchuck shut out every home game. The Wings scored 24 goals in that playoff series, compared to the Leafs and Canadiens combined total of 5. It was a slaughter. A beautiful, bloody, victorious slaughter, which lives on in our octopus flinging tradition.
For the sake of comparison, I will include at this point, some other traditions of flung goods at hockey games. The most heartwarming of these occurs on the occasion of a rookie player’s first hat trick. In a show of unflinching pride and solidarity, fans of both sides, cheering, remove their hats and litter the ice with their head gear. Returning to the gross, during the 2002-03 season, Nashville Predators fans began lobbing catfish onto the ice as a direct, albeit pathetic, response to the sainted octopus. The San Jose Sharks throw…sharks. (How creative of them.) For the 2006 playoffs, at the suggestion of a radio host, Edmonton Oilers fans flung Alberta Beef steaks, resulting in arrests at away games. In Jacksonville, the Jaguars fans throw rats. Fortunately, they have graduated to rubber versions.
It doesn’t happen every game, and it can happen at home in Detroit or on the road, but especially during playoffs, the air can be thick with flying octopi. In one game in 1995, there were a total of 36 sacrifices, one being the largest thrown to date, weighing in at 38lbs. Al is the moniker of the giant purple octopus, the Red Wings’ unofficial mascot. During playoffs, 2 of the beasts, inflatable versions, of course) hang in the rafters of the Joe Louis Arena, symbolizing the 16 wins now necessary for the attainment of The Grail of Hockey.
There is a whole etiquette to a properly thrown octopus.
- It is advisable to get a very fresh specimen, as decomposition can be problematic.
- Lightly sauté the ‘pus in lemon juice and garlic. This helps with the smell and the texture, affording the flinger a better grip.
- If you want the octo to “sit pretty” when he reaches his destination, stuff a lemon or lime into his head cavity.
- It is VERY important to AT LEAST double bag the octopus in ziplock. This will keep the lingering scent of octopus juice to a minimum, as you are now faced with where to hide the thing.
- That’s right, hide it. If security at the arena gets wind of your little flying friend, they won’t let you in. Time was, the team even faced fines for stoppage of game when the rare flying octopus took to the air. So hide that sucker in the depths of your parka, they’ll find it under your hat.
Once seated, chose your moment of chucking with care. And, please, do NOT make the rookie mistake of twirling it by the tentacles. Those things break off and you don’t want to hit the child behind you in the face with a slightly sautéed octopus. Or maybe you do. Regardless, heave that sucker high, achieving maximum altitude to make it over the glass but be aware of your range and trajectory. If you hit an official, leave the area immediately.
If you are at a home game in Detroit, you will then see Al Sobotka, the head ice manager retrieve the ‘pus. He used to do scoop it up in a snow shovel, but apparently he’s decided that shovels are for amateurs and now he just picks up the slimy thing and swings it around his head and he trots off the ice like a conquering hero. Back in 2008, the NHL tried to squash his enthusiasm with a $10,000 fine. They failed. Al remains defiant, like all good Red Wings fans.