Detroit’s Legacy, Hockeytown’s Tradition: Octopus on the Rocks

Ten months out of the year, an octopus should be in an aquarium or in the ocean. But, from mid-April to mid-June, an octopus deserves to be on ice.

This is the nature of playoff hockey in Michigan–a state that knows a thing or two about ice. It’s cold.

For those living in states that only think of ice as a cubed or crushed accompaniment to a beverage, I’ll explain this tradition.

The National Hockey League Champions are determined by a series of playoff games. Until a few decades ago, the winner of two best-of-seven series won Lord Stanley’s Cup. An octopus, having eight legs, was intended to symbolize the number of wins necessary for the Detroit Red Wings to win the championship and thereby the prized chalice. (That number has since grown as the league expanded to 16… not legs, wins.) Fans at Red Wings playoff games hurl these octopodes, from the stands still today, often against the rules of the National Hockey League, as they have for six decades.

And the mollusks, though martyred, are done so honorably; as a sacrifice for victory.

I had the privilege of attending Saturday’s Game 2 at Joe Louis Arena, located in the left-ventricle of Detroit’s ongoing open heart surgery.

When you get to your seats, despite the sudden unexpected bleeding from your nose or the smell of worn and unwashed pads from the players’ bench directly in front of you, there is only one acceptable remark.

“These are great seats!” –and they are. They are great seats because they are in the arena and not in your living room. They are where the players and the fans are. They are where the game is. The only place where $9 beers don’t make you wince.

The Detroit Red Wings, a team that knows better than most what it feels like to win–their four Stanley Cup victories over their last 20 consecutive playoff appearances–are proof of that. And further proof are the fans, donning jerseys of players that haven’t touched the ice since before cell phones existed, vintage jerseys gleaming white and burning red like new.

This is Detroit. The auto-industry made it the Motor City, but the fans made it Hockeytown and the Red Wings have made the Stanley Cup playoffs more than a tournament. They have made it a tradition.