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Tentacle Tradition

by Michael Caples / Detroit Red Wings
Al Sobotka has been firing up Red Wings' fans at Joe Louis Arena for three decades.
ROYAL OAK, Mich. -- Nothing quite says Red Wings hockey like an octopus.

The slimy, eight-tentacled creature has been the symbol for the Red Wings playoffs since the first one found its way to the ice in 1952. Ever since, Hockeytown can’t get enough of the octopi tradition.

Standing in the midst of octopi fever is Kevin Dean, co-owner of Superior Fish Company in Royal Oak, Mich. When the Red Wings began to rebuild their dynasty in the early 1990s, Dean jumped at the opportunity to rebuild a lost tradition.

Today, Superior Fish, in suburban Detroit, is the “O-Fish-Al” octopi store. The ‘Al’ part is in honor of Al Sobotka, the famed Zamboni driver and octopus twirler at Joe Louis Arena.

Signs featuring the slogan and a smiling octopus welcome you into a store adorned with Red Wings jerseys, sticks and memorabilia. A glass display case located next to the main counter features a 20-pound version of the Wings’ unofficial mascot, its tentacles outstretched to show its massive size.

Dean says that during the playoffs, the store goes from being known as “the house of quality” to “the house of octopi”. And game days are when Dean and his brother, David, have Superior Fish focused on the Wings’ success.

On playoff game days, octopi sales increase from an average of three per day to 25. During the 1998 Stanley Cup finals, Dean said they sold over 100 octopi a day.

“We’ll have our octopus display set up, which is like a religious icon,” Dean said. “We have gained a reputation so a lot of people come with their kids to see the giant octopus display.

“If there’s home games, we’ll have some Red Wings’ fans come in, especially right around closing time as they make their way down to ‘The Joe’ to pick up an octopus for whatever purposes they desire.”

Dean provides those who purchase octopi with a pamphlet that gives information for two options – consumption or propulsion. The ‘Octoquette’ section gives guidelines for the proper decorum if one chooses to propel an octopus.

“We always make sure they see the octoquette,” Dean said. “That is especially for the tad amount of people who plan on taking theirs to ‘The Joe’.”

Dean said the new NHL rules limiting Sobotka’s famed octopus swings are putting a damper on a great sports tradition. During the first round, NHL officials declared that Sobotka would be fined if he picked an octopus off the ice and swung it on the ice.

“It is a great hockey tradition, some people don’t like traditions,” Dean said.
Al the Octopus has been a staple of Red Wings' playoff runs since the late 90s.

The hockey tradition has also led to a higher consumption of octopus in metro Detroit, which Dean says is a great source of protein with little fat. Octopus is known as the ‘hot dog’ of the world. Before the tradition re-emerged, octopi was primarily eaten at Greek and Italian restaurants, but the public interest grew with the Red Wings’ success, according to Dean.

“It raised the awareness of our building and our company,” he said, “but also it has raised the awareness of the octopus as a food source. Just like the pumpkin’s put out during Halloween on the doorstep, but also people are making pumpkin pie, eating the pumpkin seeds, the same thing with the octopus.”

The tradition and the Royal Oak store have drawn national attention from cable networks like ESPN and CNN. The store has even been featured on a Japanese game show, all types of Swedish media, even the front page of the Washington Post. However, Dean’s favorite media coverage came in the form of “Hockey Night in Canada” and hockey icon Don Cherry.

HNIC visited Superior Fish in 1997 as Cherry and Ron MacLean filmed a spot about the tradition. Cherry stood behind the counter with Dean, selling octopi and talking about the Red Wings.

Dean said that the best part, however, was what Cherry did to help the business. After filming, Cherry and McLean went to the back of the store for interviews with local media, and Cherry made sure Superior Fish was mentioned.

When the Red Wings reach the Cup final, Dean said that’s the time when the Superior Fish team rises to the next level.

“When we go to the finals, as we have been going for a good percentage, we will have an octopus taste-fest,” Dean said. “We’ll have octopus chili, barbequed octopus, octopus salad and some different smoked octopus dips for people to come here so they can savor the flavor of a hockey tradition.”

The eight tentacles may not accurately represent the playoffs anymore, but there’s no mistake that the octopi tradition is a Red Wings’ tradition. And Superior Fish plans to keep their end of the bargain for years to come.

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