The tradition of throwing octopuses at Red Wings games is older than most of the teams in the National Hockey League. Legend has it that the custom of chucking cephalopods in the postseason was the creation of the Cusimano brothers, Pete and Jerry. Owners of a local fish market in Detroit, the pair believed that the octopus made for a natural good luck charm because its eight tentacles symbolized the number of wins needed to secure the Stanley Cup in the Original Six era.
One day, while handling an octopus in the shop, Jerry supposedly picked up a leg and gestured to his brother. As Pete recalled in the Detroit Free Press years later, he remembers Jerry saying, "Here's the thing with eight legs. Why don't we throw it on the ice and maybe the Wings'll win eight straight?" The brothers first put the idea into practice on April 15, 1952, when the Red Wings hosted the Canadiens in what was slated to be the last game in the Stanley Cup Final. At that point, Detroit had a commanding 3-0 series lead, and it was time to put Jerry's theory to the test. After Gordie Howe scored the first goal of the contest, Pete hopped out of his seat and hurled his stowaway mollusk onto the ice. The Red Wings went on to complete the postseason sweep and nab Lord Stanley's Mug. The rest, they say, is history.
Although the ritual of tossing octopi has become synonymous with Detroit playoff hockey, it wasn't always the case. After a dominant period that saw the club win back-to-back championships in 1954 and 1955 and reach the Stanley Cup Final nearly every year in the early 1960s, the Red Wings were mired in futility for much of the 1970s and 1980s. As a result, with the team failing to qualify for the postseason year after year, there wasn't much opportunity to carry on the custom.
All of that changed by the end of the 1986-87 campaign, the first with head coach Jacques Demers at the helm. The Red Wings had put together their best season in 14 years and it seemed as though it was high time for the octopi to fly again. So much so that the organization reached out to the Superior Fish Company to help revive the tradition, for what the club hoped would be a long postseason run.
According to Kevin Dean, co-owner of the family business, they were asked by the Red Wings organization and the media to supply them with some octopuses for a photo shoot in the leadup to the postseason that year. "There was a lot of hope and positivity in coach Demers coming to Detroit and giving the Red Wings a chance to bring a Stanley Cup back to Detroit because it had been missing for many, many years," Dean told VICE Sports.
The Red Wings ended up advancing as far as the conference finals that postseason, and as the ritual returned to vogue, plenty of the octopuses that were flung onto that ice came from Dean and his family. He noted that in a typical postseason when Detroit qualifies, they usually sell around 10 to 15 for every home game in the first round and then it starts heating up. "In 1998, during the Stanley Cup Final, we sold over 100 octopus in a single game day," he said.
It was around this time that Detroit's building manager and ice keeper, Al Sobotka, better known for his octopus wrangling, developed his patented twirling technique. Sobotka, now 63, started with the Red Wings back in 1971 when he began working for the Olympia. During those early years he didn't see many octopi, but by the early 1990s, when the club became a perennial playoff team, the task of collecting the mollusks fell on him, and he dutifully embraced the responsibility.
Read the full story at VICE Sports.