The Predators will host their first game in the Stanley Cup finals on Saturday night.
The catfish tradition is well known around Nashville, but it became national news this week because of Jacob Waddell, 36.
After an extraordinary effort to conceal a flattened catfish, Waddell threw it onto the ice — in Pittsburgh — during Game 1 on Monday night. The Predators then scored three goals before the Penguins pulled out a 5-3 win. Waddell was charged with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime and disrupting meetings or processions, although the charges were withdrawn.
Wolf watched from afar, with a measure of satisfaction.
He said the idea to toss a catfish had grown out a discussion at his restaurant and lounge, Wolfy’s, during the Predators’ inaugural season in 1998-99. Wolf, a Rangers fan born in Brooklyn, had played drums for the country music singer Johnny Paycheck and others before going into the restaurant business in a Nashville neighborhood that, at the time, was down on its luck. He also lobbied the city to build an arena to spur redevelopment in the area.
At the time, Wolf served hamburgers to construction workers and the Predators’ new owner, Craig Leipold. Once the team began playing, Wolfy’s became a stop for fans and players. There were also a number of Red Wings fans in the area because of a nearby General Motors plant and the automaker’s close ties to Detroit.
The Red Wings immediately became the Predators’ biggest rival.
A couple of days before a visit by the Red Wings in January 1999, Wolf said, he sat with friends looking for a uniquely Tennessee answer to Detroit’s octopus tradition. Jack Daniel’s whiskey was too precious. Guitar picks were too small. Wolf’s inspiration came when he walked outside and looked down the street at the Cumberland River: catfish.
Wolf bought a nine-pound catfish and wrapped it in newspaper and plastic wrap. On Jan. 26, 1999, he tucked it under his Predators jersey, entered the arena and waited for Nashville’s first goal. The stench became unbearable as he waited for the Predators to score their only goal in 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, who is now the 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, who is now semiretired and living in St. Paul, said: “It wasn’t meant to be anything but fun and answer Detroit’s call to their octopus. ‘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 halted the practice for a while.
But with the Predators in the playoffs for the 10th time in 13 years, there has been a catfish comeback.
Five landed on the ice during a game early in the playoffs. The offensive linemen for the N.F.L.’s Tennessee Titans held up catfish while revving up fans before another game. The country star Keith Urban even held up a catfish, while the Titans linemen brought more for Game 6 of the Western Conference finals. When Colton Sissons finished a hat trick, Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan celebrated by throwing a catfish instead of a hat.
Nashville’s Little Fish Market was offering a free catfish to fans with a ticket to Game 3 or Game 4.
The Predators do not discuss security procedures, and it is not clear how many catfish will arrive at Bridgestone Arena for the next two games of the series. No etiquette exists for the best time to throw a catfish, although fans have largely avoided doing so during play this season. It essentially gives the visiting team a free timeout, and there is always the threat of putting the Predators’ opponent on the power play.
Tossing catfish during pregame festivities appears to work best for fans, with one caveat: Do not hit the singer of the national anthem.
Pete Weber, the Predators’ radio play-by-play announcer, loves explaining to outsiders why Nashville fans toss 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.”
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