The throwing of an octopus on the ice during Detroit Red Wings games dates back to 1952, when it was symbolic of the eight wins it took to capture the Stanley Cup. As the playoffs have grown in the NHL, so has the tradition: Red Wings fans in Detroit, and in cities where their team visits, have smuggled slimy cephalopods into games and tossed them onto the playing surface for decades.
But as Detroit prepared for Game 2 of its Western Conference quarterfinal series against the Phoenix Coyotes on Friday, fans were buzzing about this tradition's future -- and the city police and the NHL having primary roles in its potential demise.
The hysteria began on Thursday night when Deadspin published an account from "Tommy B.", a Red Wings fan who claimed arena personnel encouraged his octopus toss in Game 1, but who was ejected and fined $500 when he tossed his octopus on the ice — after, he said, five others had already been thrown.
Ejections have happened before; but where did this fine come from? (Also see this ABC News report featuring "Tommy B," who is Tom Blaish of Canton.)
Matt Saler, who blogs on the Red Wings at On the Wings, spoke with an Officer Bullock at the Detroit Police Department's Central Events desk and was told that the city police are enforcing the policy at the behest of the NHL:
Officer Bullock informed me that the enforcement of Municipal Code 38-5-4 is at the request of the NHL. Evidently, police supervisors were informed Wednesday night, either before or during the game, by League representatives that they don't want anything thrown on the ice. An officer has to witness the throw and nab the thrower on the spot, but it's something they can and will enforce. Apparently, distance from players is not an issue: any octopus on the ice is grounds for ejection and a fine. I asked if it applied to hats thrown down for a hat trick and Officer Bullock pointed out it'd be much harder to enforce on hundreds/thousands of hats versus a few octopi.
The interesting part is that the Wings are not the ones asking for it. According to Officer Bullock, they're fine with the tradition, and even like it. And I gather the police aren't big fans of enforcing it either. It's up to the officer's discretion, so it's possible fans may still get away with it at times. But with NHL officials pushing for it, it's less safe to throw than it ever has been. Previously, it may have been a bit of an empty threat. Now it has teeth.
The NHL in recent years has sought to crack down on the octopus tradition. In 2008, the league threatened the Red Wings with a $10,000 fine if arena worker Al Sobotka twirled the eight-legged creature over his head to rally the crowd before a game. Why? Because opposing teams had complained about the "gunk," as Gary Bettman called it, that flew off the octopi.
The NHL, then, views this latest controversy as nothing new. NHL VP of media relations Frank Brown sees this controversy as a "rite of spring," and something that comes up in the first-round of the playoffs every April. He said the NHL has not wavered from its stance that the tradition is against league policy for fan behavior.
"I don't believe it's anything new, but I'm waiting to hear back from our security. It's a safety issue. You throw stuff on the ice, people get their skates caught in it, they fall down and hurt themselves. It's wrong. That's a problem," said Brown, in a phone interview Friday afternoon.
"We have tremendous respect for the custom. We get that part. But not to the point of indulging improper behavior from spectators," he said.
After our conversation, Brown sent over the following statement:
"NHL security did not direct that this person be arrested, or ejected. We do have a prohibition against throwing things to the ice surface since this may cause a delay in game or injury to players or others working on the ice surface."
According to the NHL, the City of Detroit Legal Department has prosecuted fans for throwing an octopus on the ice surface, with the determining factor in whether it violated a local misdemeanor ordinance (section 39.1.1 and 39.1.2) being whether the object could have caused injury to the participants or damage to the playing surface.
The Red Wings issued the following statement Friday, via MLive:
"The throwing of objects onto the ice surface is prohibited by the National Hockey League and persons caught doing so may be subject to prosecution for violating local and state laws.''
Also, the league pointed out that Michigan State Law -- specifically MCL 750.167, Disorderly Person (misdemeanor) section 167. (e) — states that a "disorderly person" is anyone intoxicated in a public place that is "endangering the safety of another person, or of property." According to the league, Michigan State Police "have prosecuted a Detroit Red Wings fan" that threw an octopus while violating that statute.
Why mention that? Well, the beginning of the Deadspin piece says, "keep in mind that he had a couple cocktails to accompany his creature tossing." So take that as you will.
It's clear the NHL has not backed off its campaign to end this tradition in Detroit, and according to Detroit police that opposition has been reaffirmed this postseason.
It's a campaign with which we do not agree.
As Brown said, it's a rite of spring; and just like in years past, we're left waiting to see any substantial proof that octopus "gunk" in Detroit has significantly damaged the playing surface or led to a player being injured. Because we've seen more evidence that it's a tradition worth continuing than reasons for it to end.
And if you're a Wings fan who sees a fellow Detroit backer get pinched for an octo-toss, we agree with Puck Daddy Radio co-host Rob Pizzo: Start an octopus toss legal defense fund.