Red Wings' fans uphold tradition that really stinks
Joe Louis Arena building operations manager Al Sobotka twirls an octopus thrown onto the ice before the start of Game 1 of the Western Conference hockey finals between the Dallas Stars and the Red Wings in Detroit earlier this month.
A worker at the American Airlines Center carries an octopus off the ice before the start of the third period in Game 4 of the NHL Western Conference hockey finals in Dallas between the Detroit Red Wings and the Dallas Stars on May 14, 2008.
Share with others:
Before delving into the subject of how to hide an octopus in your pants and how the Detroit Red Wings' faithful lapse into Mollusk Madness most every late spring for a half-century, let's first deal with one fact:
These suckers stink.
"I washed my hands five times, and I still smelled like octopus," Matt Mansour, 41, said by cell phone while boating in the Detroit area the other day. Mr. Mansour was the Red Wings fan who hurled a 5-pound octopus over the glass and onto Joe Louis Arena ice on May 2, just before the start of the NHL Western Conference finals Game 2 against Dallas. "What a mess. What a stinky mess.
"I may be at Game 1," he said of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Penguins at Joe Louis Arena tonight, "but I don't think I'll ever throw an octopus again. Too much stress. But it was fun. I always wanted to do it. It certainly got the crowd fired up. Everybody was high-fiving me afterward."
Five hand-sanitizings later, he still smelled like team spirit.
For the great unwashed among Penguins followers, here is the story how the smelly tradition of tossing octupusses onto the ice started.
Back when there were the original six hockey teams, a team needed to win only two playoff series to earn the league's coveted Cup. On their way to sweeping Montreal in the Stanley Cup finals, the Red Wings of Gordie Howe and Sid Abel, et. al., won eight straight games in the spring of '52, a rare occurrence. A couple of brothers and business owners from Detroit's Eastern Market decided to commemorate the feat.
Pete and Jerry Cusimano, because they owned a fish market, decided for the end of Game 4 on April 15, 1952, to toss an octopus onto the Olympia Stadium surface, with each of its tentacles representing a postseason victory for a team that coincidentally later, in its gory days, became known as the Dead Things.
"Octopus has a great flavor," said Kevin Dean, owner of the Superior Fish Company in suburban Royal Oak, Mich., famed for selling more than 100 pounds of octopusses in a single Red Wings gameday, some even to ingest (in salad, spreads, dip and octochili). "You are what you eat, and octopi basically eat crustaceans, crabs, other mollusks. They'll dine on sharks. Even ducks." Pause.
A hockey tradition unlike any other continues this week at The Joe -- as Joe Louis Arena is affectionately known -- where security guards reputedly attempt to stop cephalopod smugglers at the doors. Red Wings spokeswoman Lisa Hickok said at least three octopuses have been confiscated from ticket-holders through the first three rounds of the playoffs, and promptly pitched. Hopefully, not into the Detroit River beside the arena.
"Sometimes, they can smell them coming in on people," she said.
Ms. Hickok said octopus tossers are, if possible, apprehended and taken to Detroit city police on patrol at The Joe. The tossers aren't usually escorted from the building, but they can receive a ticket and fine, she said. This was news to a Detroit police spokeswoman, who declined to give her name but said she never heard of such a thing. Could be a disorderly conduct charge, she offered. Or, maybe, if the object actually hit a player or official on the ice, assault with ... a deadly appetizer? OK, we made up that last part.
It is indeed "octomania," as eloquently phrased by Superior Fish's Mr. Dean, who runs the family business with his brother, David. The roof of The Joe is adorned in the postseason with a huge, inflatable octopus mascot named Al. Some Detroit radio stations hold contests for tickets such as bobbing for cephalopods or mollusk catching.
Earlier this postseason, the Nashville Predators raised a fuss about fabled building operations manager/ice-lord Al Sobotka whipping The Joe crowd into a frenzy by picking up a thrown octopus and spinning it over his head. As a result, the NHL -- we couldn't make this up, either -- threatened a $10,000 fine if Mr. Sobotka or anyone twirls around a mollusk anywhere on the ice surface.
So Mr. Sobotka waits until he has returned to the safety of the Zamboni doorway, still within full view of the 20,058 Joe seats.
"I was kind of surprised by the rule, but what am I going to do?" said Mr. Sobotka, in his 37th season with the Red Wings. "The fans get a big jolt out of it. The TV people get a big jolt out of it."
And he shared his spinning secret: "You got to get a firm grip on it and kind of twirl it real fast, otherwise the tentacles hit you in the face."
Superior Fish offers a how-to guide and ice-pitching protocol the Dean brothers dub "Octoquette":
1. Boil the octopus for a half-hour to remove the natural moisture so the ice doesn't get slimed.
2. Hurl an octopus only after a Red Wings goal or at the completion of the national anthem. Game 2 hurler Mr. Mansour noticed how somebody tossed one at the end of that Detroit victory: "It was a ... sea monster. The thing had to be 30 pounds. How the hell do you get that over the glass?"
3. Throw it "away from any players, officials and personnel," to quote the SuperiorFish.com Web site. "If you have any doubt in your ability [to hit such a target area], PLEASE refrain from propelling your Octopi."
Mr. Dean and his employees go so far as to ask potential hurlers for their seat assignment, physical shape and throwing ability when selling octopuses that normally range from 1 to 16 pounds. They also will set up buyers with a kit containing large plastic bags and gloves to deal with boiling and hiding the octopus. Thanks to Superior, it has become so easy that parents have been known to celebrate the end of Pee Wee hockey seasons with a ceremonial cephalopod fling.
Any Detroit fans who plan to attend any of the Cup games in Pittsburgh better stash their eight-legged friends in their carry-on luggage because they'll have a hard time buying them here. Dan Wholey, owner of the legendary Strip District fish market that bears his family's surname, said that anyone trying to purchase an octopus during the Finals has to present a valid Pennsylvania ID. He said Wholey's will not sell their octopuses to visiting Red Wings fans; a sign above the store's octopus display says as much.
"Octopus is for eating, not for throwing," Mr. Wholey said. "It's a beautiful part of the seafood diet and we don't want any of ours on the Penguins ice, and that's a fact. The Penguins are going to win the Stanley Cup and we're strong supporters of them."
Now, about those smelly hands on Mr. Mansour, a manufacturer's rep who sells -- how Detroit -- car parts.
He went to Superior, where, he said, they boiled the octopus for him: "It is just nasty. It stinks like hell." He took the boiled-and-bagged prey to the downtown arena and thrust it down the seat of his pants.
"Everyone knows how you do it: You basically shove it down your pants and cover it up with your jersey," said Mansour, who wore a baggy Steve Yzerman No. 19. "I was using an inflatable Stanley Cup as a distraction. They almost didn't let me into The Joe because of the inflatable Stanley Cup. [Finally,] they gave me permission to go in with it.
"One [fellow fan in line] said to me, 'Is that an octopus in your pants, or are you just happy to see me?' But you have to be a little clandestine. Hide it [at your arena seat] and wait for the opportune moment. From where we sit, I wouldn't have been able to do it after a goal -- it would've hit the [protective] netting. So the national anthem was the best time to do it."
Game and mollusk on.
First Published May 24, 2008 12:00 am