I find my eight-legged friend at the bottom of the tank, next to the bubbling filter and the little toy diver. I give him a nudge. He opens his eye.
“Again?” he mumbles.
“Again,” I say.
It is that time. Again. A time of glory. A time of excitement. The Red Wings begin their playoffs. Tonight. 8:05.
“Didn’t we just go through this?” he asked. “I mean, yo, daddy, my belly still hurts from last year. Gimme a break, huh? Let’s wait till next month.”
“Can’t wait,” I say.
“Can’t wait,” he mumbles.
We are talking Joe Louis Arena. Sold out. We are talking super coach Jacques Demers. Puffed out. We are talking Gallant, Kocur, Burr, Klima, Hanlon, Oates. Sticks out. Ready to go.
Do you remember the last time we did this? Last April? Was that something you will ever forget? The Wings, for years everybody’s doormat, suddenly rising from the ashes like a phoenix, clobbering Chicago, coming back on Toronto, even giving Edmonton a net full of trouble. They went farther than anyone figured — the conference final, for goodness sake! — and the adoration rained down on them in Detroit. “Wait till next year” became “Can’t wait till next year.”
Next year is here.
“C’mon, get up,” I say to my slimy friend. “We don’t have much time.”
“Ooh, daddy, I don’t think I can make it,” he says. “My feet hurt.”
“This one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one and this one.” How far is the trip?
I try to be patient. It cannot be easy, this crazy tradition we have in Detroit. Throwing an octopus? Onto the ice? Really, now. Think about it. People around the country must see us as loonies. And think about the octopus.
“The first thing I gotta know, daddy, is where our seats are this year,” he says.
“Good seats. Center ice. Great vie —-“
“Not the view! How high up are we?”
“Uh . . . not too high,” I lie.
I cannot fault his concern. There is no limit to octopus tossing. They can come from the rafters, depending on how excited the fans get. That could be ugly. And think about the octopus.
“I tell you right now, I ain’t goin’ if you toss me during the action,” he says. “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but sticks can slice me in half.”
“When do you want to go,” I ask.
“Let’s see . . . I think . . . how about during that song they sing at the beginning?”
Well. OK. Whatever he wants. This, after all, is tradition. Tradition mixed with nerves, mixed with anticipation. How far can the Red Wings go this time? They are a better team than last season, they are the Norris Division winners this time. But they are missing their star player, Steve Yzerman, who is out with a knee injury. That hurts. Besides, there is the weight of expectation this time: people will not be satisfied with a second-round exit. That makes everything tougher.
“We open with Toronto,” I tell my little mollusk. “Forget their terrible record this season. Any time Detroit plays Toronto in anything it’s a war.”
“Um hum . . . ” he mumbles, curling around the filter again.
“And if they get past Toronto, there’s St. Louis or Chicago, and that’s no cakewalk, and then, if they manage to win that, it’s probably Edmonton or Calgary, which is like choosing pistols or rifles.”
“Yes, yes . . . ” he gurgles.
“All of this without Yzerman. Whoa. I’m telling you. It will not be easy. And—- hey. HEY, GET UP, WILL YOU!”
“All right, all right,” he mumbles, stretching in eight different directions. “I’m coming. How ’bout sprinkling some of that food while you’re up there?” He’ll fall flat on his face I sprinkle the food. And I get the paper bag ready. It is an inglorious way to make an entrance, I admit, but without the bag I’d have to buy the little creature a ticket. And you know how hard that is.
“I hear the ice is a little softer this year,” I tell him, trying to allay
his fears. “And the guys who come around and shovel you off? Real pussycats this time? Kids. Art students.”
“They better be. I still got scratch marks from that Edmonton series.”
Don’t worry, I tell him. We have a way of rising to the occasion in Detroit. Especially when it comes to hockey. Especially when it comes to playoffs. These next few weeks will be a day-by-day amusement park ride, twists and turns and spins and spills. And, of course, tosses. We begin tonight. Baseball has its first pitch. We have our first octopus.
It is only right.
Finally, my trusty friend appears, sliding out of the tank. He is ready for action. Ready for tradition. Ready to take a dive for the Red Wings and the city of Detroit. I look at my watch. It is late. We are going to have to hurry.
“Geez,” I say. “What took you so long?”
“I was putting my shoes on,” he says.