Hockey: Of Octopi and Men

The Stanley Cup Finals are next week, but hockey is dead to Detroit until at least the fall when the new season starts. The Red Wings were knocked out of the running for this year’s Stanley Cup and “Thank you!” billboards went up around the major freeways. The city seems a bit bummed, but a lot of people have moved on to watching the Tigers because that’s just what you do.

Of all the sports I don’t really care about, hockey is probably the sport I don’t care about the least. The idea of brutal feats of strength makes me pretty uncomfortable. You’d think that basketball would be my (jock) jam in that case, but I fell into hockey. My mother was into hockey when I was growing up, so I knew the teams and the basics of how the sport worked. In adulthood it came up again because I married a lifelong Detroiter and hockey is just a part of that.

While the sport is a fair amount of men with Scandinavian backgrounds beating each other up on ice, there is a mythology around the sport that just delights me.

I went to my first hockey game as an adult in Houston. While not typically associated with ice, Houston had a really good minor league hockey team. The last year I lived in Houston they went to the finals. They lost, but it was a hell of a game. (In writing this post, I found out that shortly after I left town, so did they. Which bums me out a bit. It was a nice part of living in Houston.)

Sitting with a friend at this first game, the clock for the period ran down to two minutes. The announcer clicked on, “Two minute warning, two minute warning.” The entirety of the crowd said, in unison, “Thank you!” I had no idea what to make of it. What just happened?

“We said thank you to the announcer.”


“Because he let us know there were two minutes left in the period.”

“Yes but… that’s his job. So why?”

“Because that’s just what you do.”

With a sport rooted in Canada, I should have known. This gesture was just charming.

Then there’s the stuff you see at any game: the fan who gets seats next to the penalty box on the away side so he can put up little signs taunting the player trapped inside. Something like, “I’ve been told to go to my room. :(“ with an arrow pointing to the dude waiting out the seconds til he can burst forth on the ice again. There’s the ringing of the cow bells, which might be more of a ‘sports in general’ thing, but there’s a lot of cow bell ringing which is odd to an outsider.

There’s the teddy bear toss, which is a hockey tradition around Christmas. Fans are asked to bring stuffed animals to donate to charity. When the home team scores its first goal, fans are suppose to fling their stuffed animals to the ice. It’s crazy to see. Here’s a video from Buzz Bishop of a particularly crazy one, with a nice little primer:

Isn’t that crazy? The text on that youtube video says it was around 25,000 stuffed animals.

Detroit has a… similar tradition. But weirder. When home games happen in the playoffs, people bring octopi to the game and will throw them on the ice.

Yeah. That’s a thing. Again we ask ourselves: why?

Back in 1952, the league was a little different. You needed 8 wins to secure Lord Stanley’s Cup and the championship. The Wings had seven. Two guys working in a fish market put together that an octopus has 8 legs, 8 legs is like 8 wins, and oh my god let’s bring an octopus to the game and throw it on the ice!

They did. They won. A tradition was born. A tradition that continues today and even gave birth to the Wings’ mascot, Al the Octopus.

This is crazy, right? I mean, baseball has rally caps, which is just wearing a hat wrong. Football has the act of ruining a grown man’s winning day with a Gatorade shower. But hockey has the chanting, the cowbells, the people hurling dead cephalopods onto the playing area of a sporting event… There’s so much. What makes this so different? Why are these traditions just as much a part of the game as the ice and the puck?

Ah, forget it, Jake. It’s Hockeytown.

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