NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Detroit Red Wings fans have their octopi. The Panthers’ faithful in Florida had the “rat trick.”
Nashville? The Predators have catfish, the Southern staple that has become a beloved badge of honor fans delight in throwing onto the ice for good luck.
Who started Music City’s slippery tradition? This fish tale stretches from the home of one of the Original Six NHL franchises to what once was one of Nashville’s seediest neighborhoods a generation ago, following the long and twisting path of a man who has been a country music drummer, disc jockey, chef and restaurant owner. And, as he tells it, Nashville’s original catfish chucker.
That man is Bob Wolf, and he feels his need for secrecy finally is at an end.
“It’s been 20 years almost, and it’s time,” Wolf said.
Indeed it is. The Predators are about to host their first Stanley Cup Final game, on Saturday night. Pittsburgh leads the best-of-seven series 2-0, but that’s another story.
Nashville’s catfish tradition is well known around here, but it became national news earlier this week thanks to Jacob Waddell, 36 .
After an extraordinary effort to conceal a flattened catfish on his person, Waddell threw it onto the ice - in Pittsburgh - on Monday night. The Predators then scored three goals before Pittsburgh pulled out a 5-3 win in the opener. Waddell was charged with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime and disrupting meetings or processions before they were withdrawn.
Wolf, of course, watched all this from afar with some measure of satisfaction.
He says the idea to toss a catfish grew out a discussion at Wolfy’s during the Predators’ inaugural season, back in 1998-99. Wolf is a Rangers’ fan born in Brooklyn who had played drums for Johnny Paycheck and others before going into the restaurant business in Nashville. He helped open the restaurant bearing his name across from renowned honky-tonk Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge. He also lobbied Nashville to build an arena on the other corner to spur redevelopment of what then was a neighborhood down on its luck.
Back then, he served burgers to construction workers and the Predators’ new owner, Craig Leipold. Once Nashville landed an NHL expansion franchise, Wolfy’s became a go-to stop for fans and players. There were also a fair number of Red Wings fans in the area, thanks to General Motors’ nearby Saturn plant and the automaker’s close ties to Detroit.
The Red Wings immediately became Nashville’s biggest foe.
A couple days before Detroit’s visit in January 1999, Wolf said, he sat with friends looking for a uniquely Tennessee answer to the Red Wings’ storied octopus tradition. Jack Daniel’s whiskey was too precious. Guitar picks way too small. Wolf’s inspiration came when he walked outside and looked down Broadway to the Cumberland River.
Wolf bought a nine-pound catfish and wrapped it in newspaper and plastic wrap. On Jan. 26, 1999, Wolf tucked the catfish underneath his Predators’ jersey, walked in and waited for Nashville’s first goal. The stench started wafting around him until the Preds’ lone goal in what ended up a 4-1 loss.
Wolf said he tossed the catfish, then ran up the aisle. Friends around the arena provided cover and a distraction by running as well.
“The first time I saw the catfish flop on the ice, we were playing Detroit so I thought it was an octopus,” Leipold, now owner of the Minnesota Wild, wrote in an email to The Associated Press. “I was pleasantly surprised when I realized it was a catfish. I figured that it had to be one of our fans mocking the Red Wings. I was not disappointed.”
Wolf said Leipold, still a close friend, did not know about the catfish. With a small bar inside the arena, Wolf said he knew where to hide from security, too.
“It wasn’t meant to be anything but fun and answer Detroit’s call to their octopus,” said Wolf, now semi-retired and living in Saint Paul, Minnesota. “‘Hey, we’re the new Southern team on the ice, and we’re going to throw a catfish on the ice.’ That was kind of the attitude that day.”
Nashville was hooked. The catfish caught on. The tradition became so popular that officials started handing out delay of game penalties against the Predators, which put things on ice for a while.
With the Predators’ in the playoffs for the 10th time in 13 years, there has been a catfish comeback. Dead fish have never been so popular.
Five hit the ice one night early in the playoffs. The offensive linemen of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans held up catfish while revving up fans before another game. Country star Keith Urban even held up a catfish, and the linemen had more catfish for Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. When Colton Sissons finished a hat trick, left tackle Taylor Lewan celebrated by throwing a catfish instead of a hat.
Little Fish Market in Nashville was offering a free catfish to fans with a ticket to Game 3 or Game 4 - that’s $1.95 a pound, including head, skin and guts.
The Predators don’t discuss security procedures, and it’s not clear how many catfish will be in attendance - in secret or otherwise - at Games 3 and 4. No etiquette exists for the best time to throw a catfish, though fans have largely avoided throwing them on the ice during play this season. It essentially gives the other team a free timeout, after all, and there’s that threat of putting the other team on a power play.
Tossing catfish during pregame festivities appears to work best for fans, with one caveat: Don’t hit the anthem singer.
Pete Weber, the Predators’ radio play-by-play man, loves explaining to outsiders why Nashville fans toss a catfish.
“I really tend to get tickled when I see a catfish go over the glass,” Weber said. “I absolutely love that.”
Wolf marvels at the Predators’ success and the tradition that started with a single fish.
“The idea was to keep it a secret, and obviously we did a good job until the Pittsburgh fish,” Wolf said. “And this story has to get out. It’s a fun story, and it sets the record straight.”
AP Sports Writers Dave Campbell in Minnesota and Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.
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