After Merritt’s grandmother surprised him with tickets to Saturday’s game last week, the sophomore hockey and lacrosse player at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High began brainstorming ways to put a local twist on the long-standing tradition of hockey fans throwing objects on the ice. His mind almost immediately went to Old Bay-covered crustaceans.
“I was thinking seafood, because in Detroit and Nashville they throw the octopi and catfish,” Merritt said. “I thought a crab was perfect to represent our area.”
Indeed, sea creatures and hockey go way back. The tradition of Red Wings fans throwing octopi on the ice originated in the 1950s, when the eight-legged talisman was symbolic of the number of playoff wins needed to secure the Stanley Cup. Since 2003, Nashville Predators fans have thrown catfish on the ice to celebrate big moments.
During Game 1 of last year’s Stanley Cup finals, a 36-year-old Predators fan was kicked out of Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena and arrested for carrying on the catfish tradition. Merritt hoped to avoid a similar fate, so he did some research ahead of Game 3 and came across an article about Capitals fan and experienced crab-tosser Ryan Henkin. Merritt messaged the Baltimore native on Facebook.
“I wanted to see if I would get in trouble,” Merritt said. “He kind of gave me some tips for how to pull it off.”
Henkin, who threw a crab on the ice during the preseason Baltimore Hockey Classic in 2011 and on at least one other occasion, told Merritt to find the freshest crab possible, because he learned from experience that fresher crabs hold up better upon impact. Henkin also provided a couple of ideas for how to sneak the contraband past security. In 2011, Henkin put his crab in an empty cough drops bag inside his girlfriend’s purse. The next time, he wrapped his crab in plastic wrap and placed it between two pairs of underwear. Merritt opted for the latter method; he placed his crab in a quart-size Ziploc bag and stuffed it between two pairs of underwear. His Capitals jersey helped conceal the bulge.
“It was in the front of my pants,” said Merritt, who attended the game with his cousin, brother, mother and grandmother. “It wasn’t that uncomfortable, honestly. It wasn’t like pinching me or anything. I was pretty nervous going through security, but once I got through, I went to the bathroom and took it out and put it in my bag.”
The steamed crab, purchased with $6 in cash at Bethesda Crab House on Saturday afternoon, would remain in Merritt’s bag for most of the game. With about five minutes left in the third period, he began making his way down to the main concourse from his seat in the last row of the 400 level.
“I snuck down into the 100s and I got really lucky, because there were a couple seats like four rows up [from the glass],” he said. “For the last three minutes, I had my hand in my bag.”
As the horn sounded, Merritt tossed the crab over the glass. It only lost one claw when it hit the ice and came to a rest in Alex Ovechkin’s “office” inside the left faceoff circle. Capitals players paid it no mind as they gathered to celebrate their win with Braden Holtby.
“The crab was already cooked and had Old Bay on it, and the guy next to me was talking to his girlfriend, like, ‘Man, what’s that smell?’ ” Merritt said. “I think he’s actually the only one who noticed that it was me who threw it. I just threw it and kept cheering. I was just making sure I didn’t hit any players. That was probably my biggest fear.”
After the Capitals tweeted about the crab, Merritt, who created a @capscrab Twitter account, said his phone blew up with messages from friends. He also received a text message from his crab-tossing mentor, Henkin, who told him, “Welcome to Stanley Cup Final history.”
So, should Capitals fans — and Capital One Arena security — be on the lookout for another crab Monday?
“I don’t have tickets for Game 4,” Merritt said. “I’m hoping I can pull something off, but if not, I know at least one of my friends has seats. I’m going to try to pressure him into starting a tradition. I think that would be cool, at least for the end of this Cup final.”
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