Fish stories tend to get better with age. Last spring Predators fan Jacob Waddell tossed a catfish onto the ice at PPG Paints Arena in game one of the Stanley Cup finals. When that catfish, smuggled all the way from Tennessee hit the ice, it brought a smile to my face and sparked a flood of fish stories from my days as head coach of SWS (Spooner-Webster-Siren) Rails. I imagine it did the same for many of my former players.
This is a fish story, not about the one that got away, but about the one that got tossed back—or this case tossed onto the ice.
Hurling aquatic life onto the ice at hockey games has long history, most notably the octopi tradition started in 1952 by Detroit fish market owner Pete Cusimano. Believing the eight legs of the octopus represented the eight victories needed to win the Stanley Cup, the tradition began as the Red Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup. Back in the heydays of the Badgers/North Dakota rivalry, (PETA members look away) there may or may not have been frozen badgers tossed on to the ice at the Winter Sports Center in Grand Forks. Former Badger Scott Mellanby triggered a rat tossing epidemic when playing for the Florida Panthers, when he allegedly killed a rat with his stick prior to a game in which he went on to score a pair of goals. Teammate John Vanbiesbrouck labeled the feat the “Rat Trick” and Panther fans began tossing plastic rats after goals.
As a young coach in Spooner, looking to increase student interest in our hockey program, I may or may not have posted an article in our lockeroom about the New Hampshire Wildcats tradition of tossing a fish onto the ice after the team’s first goal. Literally taking the bait, as I knew they would, our players got the word out and by our next home game, a large northern hit the ice as we tallied our first goal. In most cases our fish came straight from a local frozen lake, caught that day, then deposited onto the ice of the Spooner Area Civic Center. It became an instant SWS Rails tradition.
Scoring first in hockey games equates to roughly a 65% rate of winning, so that first goal is important. Knowing a flying fish would follow, added an intangible element to notching the first goal. We quickly learned that officials didn’t really want to retrieve the fish, so the goal scorer learned to claim his trophy fish and proudly display it to an elated crowd.
Our school administration tried to curtail this seemingly harmless gesture, but our fish bandits worked hard to disguise themselves and their intentions. Finding creative ways to sneak the fish into the rink and get it on to the ice became a cat and mouse game with a high degree of educational value in problem solving. Or at least that is the way I saw it.
Never underestimate the ingenuity of a motivated teenager.
As you would expect, the WIAA eventually figured out there was something “fishy” going on in Spooner. The tipping point came when a Moose Lake goalie had to make a save on an overzealous toss headed toward his net. Apparently that was a fish story the WIAA couldn’t ignore. Clearly too many people were now having fun, so it had to stop.
Several threats were delivered by the WIAA, but the fish kept flying. It took an ultimatum that we would be post-season ineligible if another fish hit the ice to end the fish story, or did it? Refusing to end our newly established tradition so quickly, a resourceful parent devised a way to let the flying fish live on. When the following season began, the fish returned. Strung on a steel cable high above the crowd and spanning the length of the rink, our new wooden flying fish sailed from one of the rink to the other as the crowd roared in approval.
Never underestimate the ingenuity of a motivated hockey dad.
Years later, during the summer ice season, our beloved flying fish disappeared. This was one fish that not even the DNR could locate. Snatched by a rival, rumored to have been Rice Lake, it was a mystery I’m not sure we ever completely solved. As our season approached, the fish returned, but brutally chopped up into pieces. It is time for the real thieves to come clean. The statute of limitations is up, but revenge has no set timeline.
The Spooner rink, like the mystical Phoenix, has once again risen from the ashes. It was opened again for hockey business this season. And if someday the flying fish returns, like any good fish story, it will live on forever.
The Stanley Cup playoffs are here. With the Blackhawks off doing some real fishing, for me the suspense of this year’s playoff season will be where and when the first flying fish will be sighted.
Never underestimate the ingenuity of a motivated NHL hockey fan.