A Wild tradition: pre-planned noise and spectacle

Those of you who love hockey and watch the Versus Network don’t need the symbolism of the huge, slimy octopus featured in their Stanley Cup playoff commercials explained. It’s one of those traditions that makes the seemingly unending run-up to the Cup finals so cool, and so different from any other sport.

If you’re new to the game, here’s the explanation:

From 1942-43 until 1966-67, the NHL was a six-team league with only four making the playoffs. (Fans of a certain age in New York and Boston need not be reminded which franchises usually missed out.) To earn the Stanley Cup, a team needed to win two seven-game series, amassing eight total victories.

In 1952, two guys who ran a fish store threw an octopus onto the ice in Detroit because, they said, its eight tentacles represented the victories needed for the championship. Maybe they were just dumping unused inventory, but it sounded plausible at the time. The Wings, with Gordie Howe, went on to win the Cup that year, and a tradition was born.

Now, of course, a team needs 16 victories to win it all, or 15 more than the Wild mustered last year in their first-round ouster by eventual champion Anaheim.

Funky symbol?

With the Wild making the playoffs for the second consecutive year and the third time in team history, here’s a thought: Isn’t it time Wild fans had their own unique, funky playoff symbol?

The North Stars never had one before blowing town for Dallas in 1993, according to Lou Nanne, the former Stars player, coach, general manager and all-around hockey savant.

Former North Stars captain J.P. Parise, whose son Zach scored a big playoff goal for the Devils against the Rangers last Sunday, remembers one audio tradition — the Met Center crowd roaring when the North Stars hit the ice for every playoff opener. “It was the most unbelievable ovation from the fans, better than any place we ever went,” Parise said. “You couldn’t hear yourself talk.”   

But the North Stars rarely rewarded that support. The Stars missed the playoffs six times in their first 12 seasons; when they did qualify, they were usually done by the second round. Even in the Stars’ Cup finals appearances in 1981 and 1991, no incident or player sufficiently captured the fans’ imagination.

That’s too bad, especially in a part of the country where hockey is so engrained.  Even Florida, whose next Cup will be its first, left us a memorable postseason symbol — those ubiquitous rubber rats from its 1996 finals run, after Scott Mellanby killed a real one with his stick in the dressing room on opening night. By the playoffs, fans littered the ice with rubber rats after every Panthers goal. (In the finals, Colorado fans answered by heaving rat traps. The NHL was not amused.)

“It’s got to be the sort of a thing that happens, just like in Florida with the rats,” Nanne said.  “An octopus, that’s something that just happens.”

That’s probably why Justin Morneau of the Twins, a Vancouver Canucks fan and a former hockey goalie, came up empty after a brief brainstorming session the Sunday before the playoff matchups were set. 

And it’s not something the Wild marketing machine can manufacture, though God knows they’re trying.

Before Game 1 against Colorado on Wednesday night, the onslaught of preprogrammed video and noise started about 15 minutes before they dropped the puck at the Xcel Energy Center, all carefully scripted and organized. Fans found at their seats those ubiquitous “rally towels,” the cheap white ones given out at seemingly every arena in the country. That, in itself, is a tradition ripoff from Vancouver, after Coach Roger Neilson’s famed 1982 surrender gesture to protest the officiating.

Fans were bombarded with that trite “Fight to the End” slogan, reprised from last year, when Anaheim did most of the fighting and ended the Wild’s season mercilessly. Even Wes Walz, who did the “Let’s Play Hockey” chant, read from notes.

If you’ve been to an NHL or NBA game in the last 15 years, this is what these things have turned into — ear-splitting spectacles that allow no room for individuality. The video boards prompt you to stand, cheer and yell, as if fans can’t figure out when to do it themselves. I’d like to think that, as a sports community, we haven’t become that stupid.

Has anyone at the Wild considered that their own passionate and loyal fans, if left to their own devices, might have a better idea?

Traditions takes time, and the best traditions spontaneously spring from championship runs, whether successful or not. The vibrancy of a Bruins-Canadiens series at the Boston Garden in the late 1980s and early 1990s was something, from Rene Rancourt belting the two national anthems to the way the old place shook after a big Bruins goal. And Madison Square Garden never look as good as it did in 1994, when Mark Messier hoisted a cursed franchise on his back. Spring is a magical time if your favorite team can play.

But until the Wild starts going deep into the playoffs and seriously challenging for the Stanley Cup, the State of Hockey may have to settle for the pre-planned noise and spectacle. Let’s just hope that when the moment for inspired spontaneity arrives, it isn’t drowned out by a foghorn.

“Maybe they can start a Tasmanian Devil thing,” Parise said, “because it would be so wild.”

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