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  Mascots: We Need a Capitals Idea
By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 11, 1998; Page B1

Capitals Logo

DETROIT — It's too early to start panicking — even though the Washington Capitals are down, one game to none, in the Stanley Cup finals heading into tonight's game with the Detroit Red Wings here. But this may be the right moment for Caps fans to make a little history, to gin up some mojo, to find a lucky charm to deploy when the team returns to Washington for Game 3 Saturday night at MCI Arena.

Maybe it's time to learn from the opponent and emulate the Cult of the Octopus.

In Detroit, the octopus is everywhere. High atop a downtown building. On billboards. In gift shops. On the video screen at Red Wings games. A team rallying cry is "Raise Your Hands." Banners hanging on lamp posts feature a zoologically casual octopus: It has red eyes and, instead of a beak, it has a fierce grimace, absent a tooth. One of its eight appendages hoists a hockey stick. The other seven are raised in menace. Every Detroiter knows the octopus equals the Red Wings. And every Wings fan knows the origin of the octopus:

It is April 1952. The Red Wings are about to enter the Stanley Cup playoffs. Brothers Pete and Jerry Cusimano are tending the family fish store on a Thursday afternoon, setting up the Friday display for their many Catholic customers. Naturally, they're talking hockey. Pete is holding a small octopus, getting ready to set it on the ice. Jerry looks at the tentacled treat and a light bulb goes on over his head.

"Pete," says Jerry, "if the Wings win eight straight games, they'll win the Cup. An octopus has eight legs. Let's take it to the game and throw it on the ice. It'll be good luck."

The logic was, ummm, irrefutable. After all, when it comes to the number 8, your choices from the animal kingdom are pretty limited. What're you going to throw, a handful of spiders?

Pete and Jerry boiled the dead octopus, to transform it from its natural state of gray and slimy to maroon and rubbery, so it wouldn't stick to the ice. And they perfected the proper hurling technique. Turns out there's a right way to throw these suckers.

"If you try to throw it like a baseball, you'll throw your arm out," says Pete Cusimano, now 71 and semi-retired and talking about his favorite subject from a hospital bed, where he's recovering from minor surgery. "I would fling it sidearm like a hand grenade. One time I missed and knocked a man's hat off. When he spotted what it was hit him, he left and never came back to his seat.

"They don't smell too pretty, either," he adds, unnecessarily.

When that seminal cephalopod hit the ice at old Olympia Stadium, now long gone, no one knew what to make of it. The referee skated over to pick it up but recoiled when he saw what it was. An opponent whacked it with his stick. The game announcer is reputed to have said:

"Octopi shall not occupy the ice. Please refrain from throwing same."

Maybe he did, maybe he didn't. It is known that the Red Wings, in fact, swept the playoffs and won the Cup in eight games. Coincidence? Detroiters think not.

Over the years, the custom grew in ballistic proportions. It peaked a few years ago when dozens of the deep sea dwellers would rain down after a Wings goal, halting play while building operations manager Al Sabotka cleaned them up and dumped them in the Detroit River, just outside Joe Louis Arena, where the Wings play. (For Sobotka's tireless efforts, the massive purple octopus that descends from the arena's rafters amid a shower of dry ice before Wings games is named Big Al.)

The technological zenith of the custom involved two guys who bought a 30-pounder and inserted a cantaloupe-sized rubber ball in the creature's head, where the ink sac typically resides, to make certain the head would stay propped up when it hit the ice. And probably bounce a little, for good measure.

Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the south, fans of the Florida Panthers were urging on their new hockey team by tossing dozens of rubber and plastic rats on the ice after the team scored goals. Their logic was nearly as seamless as the Detroiters': Before one game, one of the Panthers used his hockey stick to kill a rat in the locker room. The team went on to win that game; ergo, the rat became a symbol of good luck.

The National Hockey League soon became fed up with the game stoppages for cleanup and started cracking down. An octopus landed on Joe Louis ice during a previous playoff game this season and the referees informed the Red Wings that, if another came flying out of the stands, the team would be assessed a delay-of-game penalty. Chastened, and loath to do anything to harm their beloved Wings, fans reduced the octopi reign to a drizzle.

But nothing stops the industry that's sprung up around the octopus. Superior Fish, a wholesaler in Royal Oak, a suburb about 15 minutes north of downtown Detroit, has become the de facto octopus outfitter.

Kevin Dean, 38, owns the store with his two brothers. He is an affable fellow, who, through the playoffs, wears a T-shirt that reads: "O-FISH-AL OCTOPI SUPPLY."

He charges $3.95 a pound for octopus year-round. In the back of his store he has a new 54-pounder, with a 12-foot-3-inch tentacle span that he's named, natch, Octozilla. He has a handout on "Octoquette" that tells potential heavers how and when to throw.

"If you come in and tell us where your seats are and what your throwing capability is, we'll hook you up with the right octopus," he says.

He even sells an "Octo-kit," which includes a boiled octopus, latex gloves and a wet towelette packaged in a sealed plastic bag.

Even though Dean sold about 15 octopi before Tuesday's game, only one — bought who knows where — made it onto the ice, and that was just after the national anthem. Which is the ironic punchline of the story: Nowadays, the octopus is everywhere — except on the ice. The roguish, spontaneous tradition begun years ago by the Cusimano brothers, who smuggled their octopi into games in brown paper sacks shoved under an armpit, has, sadly, become institutionalized, merchandised and sanitized. A "wet towelette?" Please.

So: Given the history, given the necessary logical connections, given the NHL's attitude toward flinging projectiles on the ice, what might Caps fans come up with for Saturday's game? What talisman might they concoct for their team?

It must be a tradition that says Washington, but it must also be something that Caps fans, most of whom are from the suburbs, can identify with. It must make some sort of logical sense, twisted though it may be.

Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig was asked Monday what sort of tradition Washington could come up with for its hockey team.

"If the president kept coming out to games, that'd be a good tradition," he said. Though you can throw a chief executive out of office, you can't very well throw him onto a hockey rink.

If Caps fans decided to obey the NHL's no-tossing dictum but still felt the urge to throw something, lobbyists could sit in the stands and throw their weight around. Old Cold Warriors could discuss "throw weight."

If Caps fans feel feisty, and dare to stand up to the NHL, they could, of course, shower subpoenas on the ice. That's very Washington. Or cell phones and pagers. If it's seafood that Caps fans must fling, then let it be roughy, which is appropriate for hockey, or crabs, just for the halibut.

Dean, the O-FISH-AL OCTOPI SUPPLIER, has a suggestion.

"With the age of the team," he says, referring to the Capitals, whose average age was the greatest of any playoff team this year, "maybe fans could throw Viagra."

Yeah, and maybe you could have a nasty tentacle "accident," smart guy. It could be arranged.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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