On the Ball -- Octo-puck and ice-fishing
Ahh, all is right in the sports world these days. The NBA playoff picture is coming into focus, the announcement of the upcoming NFL schedule has plenty of people juggling their schedules to see which games they can attend, and my beloved Baltimore Orioles, who are currently leading the American League East, are right on track to build up my hopes again before they self-destruct by the season’s midpoint.
But, this year, I found myself really enjoying the National Hockey League’s playoff run, as well. And why not? Six of the eight conference quarterfinal match-ups are separated by two games or fewer in their best-of-seven-games series, lots of these games have gone to suspenseful overtime periods to determine the victor, and there is undeniable proof that the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers share a mutual animosity towards each other.
Trust me, watch one of these games, and you’ll understand what the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield meant when he once said, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.”
The one thing, however, that has intrigued me more than anything else in this sport – especially during this postseason play – are the fans and their wild traditions.
Many of us are familiar with a “hat trick,” a term used to celebrate three achievements in sports. In hockey and soccer, for example, it’s not uncommon for fans to toss their hats onto the ice or the pitch when a player scores three goals.
But where did the “hat trick” first come from? For that, we return to cricket – yes, that confusing sport that everyone else but America has seemed to pick up on. During a game in 1858, English cricketer H.H. Stephenson managed to strike three wickets in three balls. (Don’t ask me to explain what that means. I have no clue.) But, apparently, even then, as it is now, it’s quite a feat to accomplish. A collection was held to congratulate Stephenson and the proceeds were used to purchase him... a hat. Lucky him!
The tradition has carried over to games such as hockey and soccer, but fans of our stick-brandishing, skate-wearing athletes have taken it even further.
In the 1952 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings were one of only six teams competing, and to win the coveted trophy, eight playoff wins (two best-of-seven series) would get you there. So, naturally, the owner of a Detroit fish shop threw a live octopus onto the ice, claiming that the tentacles represented the eight wins needed for the Cup. Nowadays, 30 franchised teams play in the NHL, and at least 16 playoff wins are required before a championship is awarded, but the tradition has lived on.
On a number of occasions, Red Wing fans have smuggled an unfortunate cephalopod into the rink, though the act of tossing the eight-legged ocean-dweller onto the ice will, more often than not, get a fan kicked out of the game, and sometimes fined.
Officials cite the resulting delay of game and the mess left behind as an interference with play, although many will attest that the security at the Red Wings’ Joe Louis Arena is lenient toward the classic practice. Though, just last year, a Detroit fan was fined $500 for the octopus-chucking incident, so you should probably just leave it where you found it.
But, if history of the sport has taught us anything, it’s that fines and ejections can’t hold back an intoxicated hockey fan. In the 1990s, Florida Panthers fans would throw plastic rats onto the ice after a goal, a tradition, instigated by Detroit, that started after one of the Panthers players killed a rat in the locker room. But the short-lived rat-throw was stopped after a Florida fan tossed a live rat in the Penguins’ bench.
In 2003, Nashville Predators fans modified what Detroit fans started and threw catfish onto the ice, simply because it's considered a delicacy in that region. A custom alive and well today, despite repercussions, the catfish toss was present in Nashville’s matchup last week against Detroit. As you can imagine, animal-rights groups, including PETA, aren’t commonly big fans of hockey, or their followers.
The peculiar habit begs the question: How on earth do these fans enter the rink with an octopus or catfish in tow? Are these octopi suctioned to a fan’s back as he shuffles through security? Do the catfish get wrapped up in a sweatshirt that a fan has bundled up while he fights back his laughter with his buddies?
Those answers are for another day. For now, I’ll just sit back and enjoy the hockey post-season, and all the goals, hard hits and fights from the players, and whatever those crazy fans try to throw their way. Hopefully, for those animals’ sakes, it’s just hats from here on out.