I AM HERE to fight the power. I am here to rage against the machine. I am here behind Detroit's Joe Louis Arena in the hours before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, and a man is lifting up his YZERMAN jersey and inviting me to look down the seat of his pants. The dead octopus is jammed against his backside, sealed inside a plastic bag, black eye squinched in what looks like a wink. I smile and nod; I know just how the man feels. We stand united in a cause. We would lock arms and chant, I am sure, if not for the fact that the man's wife is watching skeptically. But in spirit, we are brothers. In spirit, we are thinking the same thing. Free Al Sobotka!
Al? He's the goateed Zamboni driver at Joe Louis revered for fetching the octopi fans threw onto the ice and triumphantly swinging them over his head on his way off. In April, Sobotka became even more of a folk hero after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman declared that he could no longer twirl cephalopods because a few teams had complained and, said a league spokesman, "matter flies off onto the ice." A $10,000 fine was threatened. An uproar ensued. A compromise was brokered. Those heaving octopi after goals would risk ejection—though post--national anthem heaves remained more acceptable—and Sobotka could only swing said cephalopods off-ice, at the Zamboni entrance. To some, that might seem a fair solution. To those in the know, it's an outrage.
"Ridiculous," says 41-year-old Matt Mansour, pulling the octopus out of his drawers. Tonight will be Mansour's second incursion; the Sobotka clampdown prompted his first mollusk toss two weeks ago. "Everyone got pissed off at Bettman about it. I'm a lifelong Red Wings fan, but that brought out the rebel in me."
In me, too. It's not easy to resist a rebellion marked by suction cups, especially when something so precious is at stake. Pro hockey may barely rate as TV programming, but no team sport is better to see live. NHL fans fixate on the action with unwavering intensity; they are demanding, loyal zealots who have their own ideas about showing devotion. No overcaffeinated P.A. announcer is needed to prompt hockey crowds to toss hats onto the ice after a player scores three goals or remind New York Rangers fans to chant "Pot-vin sucks!" or cajole Canadiens partisans in Montreal to sing, "Olé, olé, olé." And ever since a Red Wings supporter tossed an octopus—eight arms symbolizing the number of playoff victories then needed to win a Stanley Cup—onto the ice in 1952, the smuggling and hurling of the slimy beasts has been the best fan expression of all. For nearly four decades Sobotka has cleaned up the glop; since 1991--92 his windmilling antics have transformed a custodial act into the battle scene from Braveheart.
Still, I might not have been so fiery-eyed if two days earlier, at an NBA playoff game, I hadn't seen what happens when a fan base loses its way. Maybe I should have been prepared; even commissioner David Stern has bemoaned the canned noise and choreographed nonsense swamping his game. But I expected playoff basketball in Boston's new Garden to contain elements of the old: serious fans in symbiosis with their beloved team. Boston had held out longer than anyone on dance squads, after all, deciding to have one just before legendary Celtics boss Red Auerbach died in 2006. "He never lived to see it," says Boston Globe columnist Bob Ryan. "Thank God."
This was Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals, against the Detroit Pistons, but the Garden didn't trust its ticket holders to know the game anymore. There was the command to chant "Dee-fense" on every Detroit possession; fans mugged happily for the JumboTron cameras as their team lost 103--97. There was one moment, midway through the fourth quarter, when the old Boston soul stirred and the crowd tried to generate its own "Let's go, Cel-tics!" But then an Irish jig screeched over the loudspeakers, and that faded too. R.I.P., Red.
And that's how I came to Superior Fish in Royal Oaks, Mich., last Saturday to buy a boiled octopus for $8.26. That's how I came to open my belt, shove the enplasticked hunk down my pants and walk through security at Joe Louis. I was only a mule; I handed the package to a high school senior named Derek Arnold. "Make me proud," I said. Derek replied, "I will"—and then actually did. After the anthem's last note he flung the octopus over the glass. Two others landed on the ice too. Sobotka went out to get them and then stood at the Zamboni gate windmilling one, but the roar didn't compare to what he used to hear when he ran free.
In the first period Mansour hurled his octopus after an apparent Detroit goal and was ejected from the first Stanley Cup game he ever attended. "This is Gary Bettman's new NHL," he said from his phone after being escorted out. Thus the fight goes on, with this our manifesto: The octopi must fly. Let our Sobotka go.
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NHL zealots have their own ideas about showing devotion—the hurling of octopi being the best. I've seen what happens in the NBA when a fan base loses its way.
ILLUSTRATION BY KEITH WITMER