Throwing An Octopus (or Another NHL Team Spirit Animal) May Seem Harmless, But It Could Cost You

Detroit Red Wing fans have turned chucking an eight-legged sea creature onto the ice into an artform because they have perfected it since the 1950s. In 1952, two fans threw the first octopus to represent the eight games necessary for the Wings to win the Stanley Cup that postseason. Today, the team adopted the cartoonish Al the Octopus as its postseason mascot, and the team hangs two Als from the rafters to represent the sixteen games now necessary to win the Cup. Of course, the fans continue to carry on the octopus-tossing tradition all in good fun.

This tradition has inspired other NHL cities to test their own versions, some of which stuck longer than others. Nashville fans threw catfish, San Jose fans threw sharks (including a three-foot leopard shark!), then-Phoenix fans threw a snake, and Edmonton fans threw steaks.

In many NHL cities, though, the law could turn an already expensive night into an even more expensive and time-consuming nuisance. A fan who throws something on the ice can be ejected from the game, arrested, and fined. Municipal codes are one roadblock standing in the way of hockey fans who want to go the extra mile for audience participation. Wings fans should familiarize themselves with Detroit City Ordinance 38-5-4. It states:

"It shall be unlawful for any person to cast,throw, hurl or fling any bottle, can, receptacle, or any other object which could cause injury or damage in the spectator area where any athletic contests or exhibition is conducted or into or upon the area used for the conduct of such contests or exhibition while the same is in progress and during intermissions and delays of such contest or exhibition."

Other cities have their own form and level of municipal code enforcement as well. For example, when the Red Wings were losing an away game to the Boston Bruins 5-1 earlier this month when the two teams battled each other for the final playoff position, a Wings fan walked up to the first row, tossed an octopus, and was arrested for disturbing a public assembly. One can imagine this could be enforced if a Bruins fan decided to try for extra participation credit, or maybe the police and security would brush off the non-threatening action as many enforcement officials try to do in Detroit.

The second "legal" roadblock apart from municipal code is a NHL rule that the general managers voted to approve. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has increased enforcement of the rule over the past handful of years, too, which can create an interesting dynamic between the team and the spectators. Basically, it goes:

"If fans litter the ice with debris after a goal in this season, they will be warned by the public address announcer to stop. If they persist, the referee will have the authority to issue a minor penalty for delay of game to the home team."

One officiating crew this hockey season actually went as far as penalizing the Florida Panthers when fans threw the giveaway plush rats onto the ice. It was not the coach, personnel, or inactive players who threw them but the fans, and the referees gave the Panthers not one but two penalties in a critical game against the New Jersey Devils near the regular season's end. Fortunately for the team and fans, the Devils failed to capitalize on both power plays, but can you imagine the discord that would have existed if they had and the Panthers lost the game?

It makes sense that these arenas need to obey city ordinances, especially since cities fund a portion of many NHL arenas and thousands of people's safety is at risk in one small, confined place. Neither the city nor the NHL wants to assume liability for someone's injury - fan, employee, personnel, or player - caused by a fan hurling items toward or onto the ice. After all, safety is why the League prohibited Detroit zamboni driver Al Sobotka from picking up the sea creatures from the ice himself and twirling them as he walked off. The League pointed out that gunk flies off, but it lessened its harsher stance and eventually caved into tradition to let him twirl at the zamboni entrance. Throwing (or twirling) an octopus on the ice is different from waving around a rally towel or hitting around an inflatable beach ball in the seats.

In conclusion, enforcement of these rules is inconsistent. I am not saying fans should cease to carry on tradition. Rather, fans should be aware of the potential legal implications to make an informed decision factoring in the laws, rules, and general environment before purchasing, sneaking in, & throwing your NHL team's spirit animal on the ice. If that desire still lingers, please familiarize yourself also with "octopus etiquette" as common courtesy. LGRW!