When most sports teams win, their fans scream, clap, sing and chant. But in Detroit, Michigan, fans of the city’s ice hockey team, the Red Wings, lob octopuses onto the ice.

Not only is the “Legend of the Octopus” a thing, but it’s been a thing since 1952. Back then, the National Hockey League (NHL), North America's premier professional hockey circuit, was smaller than it is today. There are now 23 clubs to beat in the US and seven in Canada, but back in the '50s, a team needed to win just eight playoff games to claim the championship title. And it was a former fishmonger named Peter Cusimano who put two and two together to make eight. 

Eight games. Eight arms. Throw an octopod onto the ice for good luck. Or something. 

Surely there are sports traditions based on less logic, but you’d have to dig a bit to find one. Especially since the NHL playoffs now require a team to win 16 games before they can clutch the biggest trophy in North American ice hockey, the Stanley Cup. (Not surprisingly, some Detroit seafood dealers now endorse tying two octopuses together. Listen to those cash registers sing!)

But here’s the thing about octopuses: you can’t just ball one up and throw it. The consistency of the flesh is all wrong. The head can be severed by the momentum of the throw, or worse, the glistening carcass can stick to the ice in an unceremonious heap, much as a wet tongue does to a flag pole. I mean, who wants to strap a plastic bag full of rotting mollusk flesh to their chest and sneak it past security at the hockey arena – yes, octopus-throwing is a criminal offence – only to have the sacrificial limbs fail you at the crucial moment of victory? 

Ah, but that’s why the true Detroit Red Wings fan knows how to prepare an octopus for optimum launch capacity. The sea creatures must first be boiled a bit, preferably with a touch of lemon juice and white wine to disguise the odour. A boiled body sails through the air and lands on the playing surface intact and with just the right amount of bounce to celebrate the triumph of one team of grown men playing a game against another team of grown men. Anything else is just silly.

If I sound bitter, it’s probably because I’ve seen my share of cephalopods as a fan of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a rival hockey organisation. In fact, when we squared off against the Red Wings in the 2008 Stanley Cup Finals, Pittsburgh fish markets took it upon themselves to not sell octopuses to anyone who might use them to send luck to our enemies – i.e., people in Red Wings gear.

It goes without saying that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have condemned the octopus-throwing. “What’s next – throwing dead kittens and dead puppies on the ice just for laughs?” asked Michael McGraw, PETA’s director of media relations, back in 1996.  

Katherine Harmon Courage, author of the excellent Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea, takes a more measured approach. “On the one hand, I appreciate the center stage the octopus gets (briefly) during this unusual sports ritual,” she says in an email. “But I do think it is too bad to have to sacrifice such an intelligent, amazing – and mysterious – animal in the process.”

After all, we now know that octopuses can solve puzzles, conquer mazes and even recognise individual humans. Superpowers of camouflage and shape-shifting ain’t too shabby either. Of course, the average Detroit hockey fan is certainly not plucking octopuses off some reef – they're available at any good fish market and probably your local grocer’s freezer. Still. “At the very least, [this] is a bit of a waste of fine food,” Courage says. 

I should probably also add that elsewhere in the NHL, as teams come up against the Red Wings in the playoffs, fans have taken it upon themselves to sling other wildlife onto the ice as a way to stick it to Detroit. In Nashville, Predators fans fling catfish. In San Jose, a Sharks fan took it one step farther by stuffing an octopus into a leopard shark’s mouth and throwing that onto the ice.

As a hockey fan, and a Red Wings-hater, I’ll just put it out there that I don’t condone throwing any type of dead animal on the ice. Seafood, and meat in general, is already about as unsustainable as it gets. And where I come from, if you’re going to kill something, you'd better at least eat it. (Not that I suspect anybody that cares about the environment or endangered species spends much time smuggling dead animal carcasses into sporting events.)

But in the grand scheme of things, octopus-throwing is a minor, seasonal hullabaloo compared to things like the illegal wildlife trade, exotic pet trafficking or habitat fragmentation. And there are more gruesome things in the sports world. For instance, have you ever heard of Buzkashi?

Top header image: Joe Parks/Flickr