Hundreds of octopuses have been thrown onto the ice at hockey games over the years, but Pete Cusimano was there at the beginning. To prove it, he'll show you the laminated Trivial Pursuit card he carries in his wallet. Q: What was superfan Pete Cusimano famed for tossing onto the ice at Detroit Red Wings NHL games in the Olympia? A: Octopuses. Cusimano admits that the tradition he started 42 years ago is banned by the league, but he stresses that his self-imposed regulations limit the impact of his lawlessness.
"First of all, you boil the octopus to firm it up a bit," says Cusimano, 67, of Roseville, Mich. "That way it slides when it hits. It doesn't go plop and stick to the ice. Second, wrap the octopus in paper, because even after you boil it, the juice leaks out. Warn the people in front of you before you throw it—that's important. And wear a glove, so you don't sit there the rest of the game with that stink on your hand. Boiled octopus ain't exactly Chanel No. 5."
Finally, an octopus should be thrown only once a year, immediately after the first goal of the first home playoff game, but this stipulation is now all but forgotten. "People throw them during the regular season sometimes," says Cusimano, "but that means nothing."
The tradition of launching octopuses at NHL games began on April 13, 1952. Cusimano and his brother, Jerry, who died two years later in a car accident, were working at their father's fish and poultry market. They were excited about that night's Stanley Cup final game between the Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens. The Wings had dispatched the Toronto Maple Leafs in four straight in the semifinals and had won twice in Montreal to bring them within two victories of the Cup.
"Here we are putting these octopuses on display in our store, working with four-pounders, my brother and I," recalls Cusimano. "Then it hit me: Eight wins, eight legs. Stanley Cup! [Until the 1967-68 season, a team had to win only two best-of-seven series to win the Cup.] What a good-luck charm that would be! So Gordie Howe scores the first goal, and I let it fly. It hit by the face-off circle and slid like a puck to the blue line. George Hayes, one of the linesmen, skated toward our good-luck charm and almost jumped out of his skates. The crowd went wild, and the next morning a picture of the octopus was in the paper."
The Wings, behind Hall of Famers Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and goalie Terry Sawchuk, shut out the Canadiens in that game and again two nights later. Detroit won the Cup in eight straight games, a legend was born, and Cusimano and his octopus became a fixture at Red Wing postseason games.
However, things didn't always go as smoothly as they did that first night. One year he hit a Maple Leaf player square in the face. "But that was very much an accident," says Cusimano. "I was aiming for a different Toronto player."
In 1964 he violated one of his own rules and took his act on the road, to Maple Leaf Gardens during the Stanley Cup finals. "I let it fly, and sure enough, here come two constables," he says. "They told me if I did that again I was going to jail. I said, 'Yes, sir.' At the Olympia I knew all the ushers and cops, so I never had any problems in Detroit."
In 1979 the Red Wings left the Olympia for Joe Louis Arena, ticket prices went up, Cusimano's sons, AI and Mark, started playing youth hockey, and Cusimano stopped going to games. But the tradition lives on. During some Red Wing playoff games a dozen or more octopuses come raining out of the stands, as they did this spring against the San Jose Sharks, but alas, to no avail; the upstart Sharks stunned Detroit in seven games. Al Sobotka, the operations manager at Joe Louis, has been known to twirl an octopus like a lasso after clearing it from the ice. "I pick 'em up with my bare hand," says Sobotka. "They're a little slimy, sure, but the fans enjoy it."
However delightful Detroit fans may find Cusimano's tradition, it is not surprising that the NHL opposes it. "We see octopus tossing as a distasteful act that's gained considerable notoriety over the years," says John Halligan, the league's director of special projects. "In no way does the league condone the throwing of anything onto the ice, including octopuses."
The Red Wings, though, have adopted the octopus as a mascot. Fans wear octopus T-shirts and wave spongy octopuses on sticks. Cusimano, who works part time in the purchasing department of an Italian restaurant, believes the tradition of octopus tossing will be around for years.
"My dad could never understand it, says Cusimano. "He'd say we were throwing a meal on the ice. Sometimes it backfired. I'd throw the octopus, and the Wings would lose. But in 1952, and again in '54 and '55, the octopus did what it was supposed to do: eight legs, eight wins."
The NHL frowns on Cusimano's mollusk missiles.
Mark Mandernach lives in Arlington Heights, Ill., and has written several stories for Sports Illustrated.