The Legend of the Octopus - Pacific Standard

The Legend of the Octopus

Rituals of fandom and a night gone wrong in the Motor City.
Author:
Publish date:
al the octopus red wings

Al the Octopus at Joe Louis Arena. (Photo: jpowers65/Flickr)

Ryan Baddeley is standing up at the table, his right arm extended in front of his body, like he’s throwing a bowling ball. “Right there,” he says, at the apex of his swing, one leg dropped behind him, down to the ground, and the other lunged forward at 90 degrees. “That’s where I lost it.”

The coffee shop is empty and early afternoon light spilling through the windows casts a line at his feet, like it’s holding him in place. He keeps the pose for a moment.

“I had been planning this thing so perfectly,” he says, snapping back to the present. “It was like a breakaway, an open-net goal, you know? Everything was right there. I just completely fanned.”

Baddeley is good-humored, but it’s obvious he’s disappointed about what happened, as anyone would be. For a segment of hockey fans—those who cheer for the Detroit Red Wings—the experience he recounts is one filled with history and represents a small but important part of a much larger collective identity. Baddeley shakes his head and settles into his seat.

“I wanted to be one of the guys who threw an octopus onto the ice,” he says, “and I wanted to do it at Joe Louis. It just didn’t work out the way I planned.”

ps_break1.jpg

The Legend of the Octopus began in 1952, when the first cephalopod came flying over the boards. At the time there were only two rounds to the postseason. The Red Wings needed to win eight games to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano—owners of a fish market in Detroit's East Side—deemed the octopus, with its eight dangling tentacles, the appropriate symbol, each leg representing a win. The sea-gods approved: The Red Wings went on to sweep both rounds of the playoffs that year, winning the fifth Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Certain rules of etiquette have developed around the spectacle, such as boiling the octopus beforehand so it doesn’t leave too much residue on the ice. A splash of lemon and white wine is also encouraged, to help with the odor.

Since then, Detroit has collected another six championships—bringing the Red Wings’ total to 11—and relocated from Olympia Stadium to Joe Louis Arena, where the octopus toss has become a near-nightly occurrence. Certain rules of etiquette have developed around the spectacle, such as boiling the octopus beforehand so it doesn’t leave too much residue on the ice.

A splash of lemon and white wine is also encouraged, to help with the odor.

Other fans, like Bob Dubisky and Larry Shotwell, have become regionally famous for their tosses. That duo worked together to heave a 50-pound behemoth over the glass during the 1995 playoffs. After being hauled off the ice, it was then placed on the hood of the Zamboni—a gleaming, fleshy hood ornament—and then proudly circled around the rink between periods.

Longtime Zamboni driver and building manager Al Sobotka has also earned celebrity status in hockey circles. For more than 30 years, he’s peeled the creatures off the ice, and, when the moment calls, emphatically twirled them above his head, to the delight of the crowd. An unofficial record was set during the 1995 playoffs, when 54 octopuses were thrown during one game. The average number, according to Sobotka, is closer to 25.

“The more octopi the merrier,” he told the New York Times. “People here look forward to my little act, and the N.H.L. is nice enough to kind of look the other way and not have me whistled for a delay-of-game penalty whenever I do my thing out there.”

According to league rules, when fans throw objects onto the ice, their team could be issued a delay-of-game penalty. Sobotka, however, has earned something of a free pass.

"Every so often, an octopus slips out of someone's hands, and Al is right there to take care of the matter,” Frank Brown, the league’s vice president for media relations, explained to the Times. “And he cannot be blamed if, as it tries to break free from Al's grasp, the octopus lifts Al's arm and twirls itself in the air."

The team mascot is named Al the Octopus, in honor of Sobotka, and an 800-pound sculpture of an octopus is tucked above the Gordie Howe Entrance to the arena, keeping an eye on fans as they stream into the building, some of whom are smuggling in their own, smaller octopods—aiming to land their own story in the lore of the team.

ps_break1.jpg

Ever since Baddeley first saw an octopus splatter onto the ice, he’s wanted to hurl one himself. Sports fandom can make otherwise normal people do strange things, and Baddeley is no exception to that rule. Research on the ritualistic consumption of sports has found that participating in practices like the octopus toss allows fans to maintain and celebrate the cultural meanings attached to their teams—it connects them to a larger, identifiable group. It reinforces their fandom.

Baddeley grew up in Sarnia, Ontario, closer to Detroit than Toronto, and there, thanks to his father, the Red Wings became his team—despite the robust pride of nearby Leafs Nation. Now, living and working in Toronto, he’s maintained his connection to the Red Wings.

The octopus toss is “one thing I always wanted to do at Joe Louis,” he says. “Because all of the history there and now, since it’s closing [scheduled for 2017], I figured I had to do it.”

Baddeley is a chef and handles seafood every day. When a friend was able to get tickets to a first-round game between the Red Wings and the Tampa Bay Lightning, the perfect opportunity finally presented itself. He planned accordingly, transporting the octopus (it weighed about three pounds) in a vacuum-sealed bag tucked under the belt of his pants.

At the intermission of the second period, he went down to the washroom and punctured the bag with his keys. Then, back under the arena lights, he scouted his route. He was seated in the upper deck and the long, lonely walk down to the ice was the most nerve-racking part of the entire experience, he says.

“I was like, either you're going to do it or you're not going to do it, and then I just said fuck it. They took a commercial break and the kids came out to sweep the ice so I started to walk down and then I grabbed it by the head, and most people do it underhand....” He pushes himself away from the table, rising to his feet to demonstrate the preferred form. “I thought it would be a nice and easy toss, right over, and then it just slipped so easily out of my hand and went about four feet diagonally, right into the glass. It had no chance.” The sound, he says, was a wet thud.

Then things got worse.

“It landed by some guy’s feet, and everyone started looking at me and I’m, ‘Aw man, this is the worst,’ so I try and scurry over and pick it up but it was a little too far and then the guy who was there grabbed it and held it up. I was like, ‘Oh no, no you’re not,’ but he was too far to grab or anything and he held it up and the fans started to go wild and then he threw it over. He threw it over onto the ice and I just went back to my seat. It was brutal. I literally walked back to my seat in shame.”

When it landed, Sobotka was there, and before long the octopus, after its international journey and having passed through several sets of hands, was whirling above Al’s head, the tentacles dangling like a spool of yarn unraveling, the crowd erupting as the creature churned the air.

Back at his seat, in the upper rows, Baddeley couldn’t help but notice the imprint the body had left on the glass, a constant reminder for the rest of the game of what had happened. And then the video came out.

Initially, Baddeley told his father and brother that everything went fine, that he threw it right onto the ice and in perfect form, but when the video started to circulate he knew he had to come clean.

"The day after, I told everyone at work and everyone was just so happy. My co-worker said he couldn't sleep that night because he was so excited to tell everyone he knew. My dad was more disappointed, a little bit ashamed," Baddeley says. "He said he had to go tell his buddies at the golf course what really happened. He wasn’t looking forward to that."

ps_break1.jpg

Last Monday, the Chicago Blackhawks won their third Stanley Cup in six years. As the final minutes ticked down, the streets of downtown Chicago flooded with fans. In the suburb of Hinsdale, more fans gathered outside the home of Joe Quenneville, the Chicago head coach—and, as they’ve done each time the team has won the Cup, they covered his home and property in toilet paper.

Reports about the papering referred to it as tradition, noting that no damage was caused and that neighborhood kids would clean up the mess in the days following. The papering, like the octopus toss, is another ritual—another aspect of the collective identity that sport fosters.

As for Baddeley, now that he’s had time to process the incident, he takes the philosophical view. “The way it went, it’s a little more special than if I’d just gotten it onto the ice. It’s still humiliating, but it’s just kind of something that would happen to me. My brother’s more athletic than me so I told my dad, ‘Well, at least I made TSN [Canada’s version of SportsCenter] first.’”

Next season, the legend of the octopus will live on, and for any fans thinking of trying the toss themselves, Baddeley has some advice: “Don’t tell anyone what you're going to do before you do it and don’t let your friends film you ever.”

Asked if he’s willing to give it another shot, Baddeley hesitates. “I really don’t know if I’d want to do it again because I’d be so much more nervous. If I missed again...” he trails off, and contemplates for a moment. “If I missed again I may as well be a Leafs fan.”

The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.

Related