Photo of Detroit Red Wings fans at Joe Louis Arena.

Photo Source: Boston.com

Despite the 24 Stanley Cups won by the Montreal Canadiens, the history and passion of the Detroit Red Wings fans is on par with Montreal's. Hey, they don't call Detroit, Michigan "Hockeytown USA" for nothing. The Red Wings have won an impressive 11 Stanley Cups, good for third in the NHL all-time. But the Detroit Red Wings fan base most well known for a wacky tradition.

It was April the 15th, 1952, also known as "Tax Day" throughout the United States. The NHL was still in the Original Six era and the Detroit Red Wings were making a deep playoff run for their fifth Stanley Cup. Standing in their way were the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. In order to win the cup, the Red Wings had to win eight games, in two "best of seven series". As a symbol of good luck, season ticket holders Jerry and Pete Cusimano threw an Octopus onto the ice at the old Detroit Olympia Stadium, also known as the "Old Red Barn". Not only did the Red Wings win the game that day but they finished the playoffs undefeated and won two of their next three Stanley Cups. The Octopus became the Red Wings' unofficial mascot and has been thrown onto the ice every season since; typically during the national anthem or following a goal. Below is a photo of Detroit's Eastern Market, where the Cusimano Brothers operated their market. This is where most of the Octopi came from.

 Detroit's Eastern Market.

As the tradition continued to grow and become more well known throughout hockey, many more Octopi were being thrown onto the ice. On Opening Night at Joe Louis Arena in 1979, the game was interrupted many time due to fans throwing Octopi onto the ice. In 1995,  Bob Dubisky and Larry Shotwell who were also workers in the Meat and Seafood industry, tossed a 38 lb. Octopus into the rink. This particular Octopus was the largest ever thrown in Detroit Red Wings history until the duo struck again in 1996 with a 50 lb. Octopus.

Flash forward to 2015 and there is a figure who serves as the face of the "Octopus throw" perhaps more so than the founding Cusimano Brothers. His name is Al Sobotka. For more than 30 years, Joe has been the head Zamboni driver at Joe Louis Arena. His official title is Operations Manager for Olympia Entertainment, which owns and operates both Joe Louis Arena and the Cobo Center (home of the Detroit Auto Show).

Al Sobotka, Joe Louis Arena Operations Manager

Photo Source: ESPN.com

Al is known for twirling the Octopi over his head after retrieving it on the ice; an action in in which he has battled the NHL over on more than one occasion.  The linesmen are able to issue a delay of game penalty if an Octopus is thrown onto the ice and interrupts the game but never do. Later, the NHL threatened the Red Wings with a $10,000 fine if Sobotka twirled an Octopus in the air after retrieving it. The slimy residue was getting on the uniforms of the players and also on the ice. The NHL has retracted this threat and allow Sobotka to twirl the Octopus as long as he does so near the Zamboni gate at the corner of the rink. According to Sobotka, an average of 25 Octopi are thrown during Red Wings home playoff games. How he was able to come up with that number is unknown.

In honor of Al Sobotka, the Red Wings had two giant Octopi props created and named after him. They hang from the Joe Louis Arena rafters and are used almost exclusively used during the NHL playoffs. And since the Red Wings have made the NHL playoffs a league record 24 years now, "Al the Octopus" has become a familiar face and mainstay around Joe Louis Arena. Sometimes the prop is dressed in a giant number "8" Red Wings jersey. The Red Wings created a second Octopus prop to represent the 16 playoff wins required for the Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup.

 Al the Octopus, mascot of the Detroit Red Wings

As you could imagine, there are a number of NHL franchises who have copied the Detroit Red Wings with a toss of their own. Each toss having it's own local element. The Nashville Predators fans consistently throw catfish onto the ice during games (began in 2002). A variety of sharks have been thrown onto the ice at the SAP Center, home of the San Jose Sharks. Vancouver Canucks fans have been known to throw salmon onto the Rogers Arena ice due to British Columbia being a haven for salmon fishing. The Edmonton Oilers and Florida Panthers fans are in the prop throwing mix as well. Edmonton Oilers fans will frequently throw Alberta Beef at Rogers Place during games. Florida Panthers fans will throw toy rats onto the ice following hat tricks. This quirky tradition began after a former player killed a rat in the team's locker room before scoring a hat trick. The tradition is called the "rat trick".

If you ever get the chance to see a Detroit Red Wings game at Little Caesars Arena, you need to take advantage, hockey fan or not. I was fortunate enough to visit and see an Octopus thrown on April 7th, 2013 vs. the St. Louis Blues. In all honesty, the Octopus being thrown produced the loudest roar of the day from the Detroit Red Wings crowd. Strangely, the Octopus was thrown during a random stoppage in the game and the Red Wings did not score a goal that day.

 

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