The origins of Predators’ catfish-tossing tradition

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) 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with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime and disrupting meetings or processions before they were withdrawn.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.

Catfish!

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.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

Follow Teresa M. Walker at http://www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Previewing the 2019-20 Calgary Flames

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: This was an offseason of mostly lateral moves for the Flames, exemplified by Calgary bringing in an uncertain but slightly younger goalie (Cam Talbot) for an aging and all-over-the-place netminder (Mike Smith).

The Milan LucicJames Neal trade seems like a loss for the Flames, but then again, Neal just didn’t fit for Calgary, to the point that things bordered on awkward.

Let’s consider the Flames marginally worse. In all honesty, the biggest hits came in Round 1 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when they were embarrassed by the Avalanche.

Strengths: When you look at the best of the best in Calgary, the Flames boast talent that can hang with just about anyone. Mark Giordano‘s been considered an uncrowned Norris Trophy defenseman for some time, and he finally sat on that throne after 2018-19. Johnny Gaudreau is one of the most sublimely gifted playmakers in the NHL, and thus helps his top line usually rank among the best in the league most seasons. Matthew Tkachuk isn’t just an antagonist; like Brad Marchand, he’s also a player who annoys opponents because he’s also really good.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Flames are still a bit lacking when it comes to depth at both the forwards and defense positions. If Gaudreau’s line falters and Tkachuk’s trio cannot score, the Flames are in trouble — and there’s quite a bit of a drop from Giordano to other blueliners.

Goaltending remains a big question, too. Can Talbot form a strong tandem with David Rittich?

[MORE: Under Pressure: Treliving | 3 QuestionsTalbot the X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): For the most part, Bill Peters’ first season in Calgary was a success, although the postseason was rough, and you wonder if some blame Peters for lacking answers as Colorado mopped the floor with his Flames.

Peters’ seat warms up in part because his “riverboat gambler” GM Brad Treliving as made a lot of big bets, and many some are wondering if Calgary should cash out. Coaches often get sent out with fired GMs, so that’s something to consider.

Overall, I’d put Peters at about a four.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Cam Talbot, Matthew Tkachuk, Milan Lucic.

Talbot went from being a fantastic backup with the Rangers to a workhorse early on for the Oilers — to the point that Edmonton wore him out like an NFL RB who saw far too many carries. Talbot’s stature in the league plummeted, yet at 32, he’s not so old that a rebound is totally out of the question.

Tkachuk stands with a handful of high-profile RFA stars who still need new contracts. He’ll be fascinating to watch as those negotiations play out, whether we’re debating the merits of a deal soon, or watching as things drag out into the season. Either way, he’ll draw attention, especially when he has that mouthpiece dangling obnoxiously out of his maw.

Every now and then, a “change of scenery” really does work out, at least if you keep expectations in check. The Flames may end up playing to Lucic’s strengths more effectively than the Oilers, or Lucic may simply have needed a reboot. Or he’s just washed. It could be that last one.

Playoffs or Lottery: Playoffs. It seemed like a few Flames played over their heads, and Giordano’s getting up there in age at 35, so there’s a risk that Calgary lags behind the Sharks and/or Golden Knights during the regular season. Still, with the Pacific being as weak as it is, it would be a surprise if the Flames missed the postseason altogether.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Previewing the 2019-20 Arizona Coyotes

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)
 
For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Better. The Coyotes made a splash when they acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins this off-season. Assuming he comes in with the right attitude, Kessel alone makes the Coyotes a better team. The ‘Yotes haven’t had a sniper like him in a long time and head coach Rick Tocchet’s ability to get the most out of Kessel should help Arizona in a big way. Let’s not forget, this Coyotes team is young, too. So, there should be some internal progression as well.

Strengths: Arizona has quietly built up some solid depth down the middle of the ice. When healthy, Nick Schmaltz produced offensively, as he accumulated 14 points in his first 17 games with his new team. If he can keep that up, the Coyotes will be that much tougher to stop. They also have veterans like Derek Stepan and Carl Soderberg that will make important contributions this year. We’ve already talked about Kessel and what he brings to the table, but they also have other dynamic forwards on the wing like Clayton Keller and Christian Dvorak, too.

The Coyotes also have a deep blue line with Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Alex Goligoski, Niklas Hjalmarsson, Jakob Chychrun and Jason Demers. And their goaltending is stable with Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper.

[MORE: Under Pressure: Kessel | X-factor | Three questions]

Weaknesses: Overall depth might be an issue up front. Do they have enough players in the bottom-six that can contribute offensively when their offensive-minded players go quiet? Overall, this is a well-balanced team that could use more depth, but which team doesn’t need that?

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Let’s go with a four for Rick Tocchet. He’s not really on the hot seat going into the season, but his team also has to show some significant signs of improvement this year. They finished ninth in the Western Conference last year (they missed the playoffs by four points), so they have to improve this year or the seat will get hotter for Tocchet.

Three Most Fascinating Players: You can’t have a fascinating players section on the Coyotes roster and not talk about Kessel. We know what Kessel is capable of doing on the ice, but how will he mesh with his new teammates off the ice? Can he be the leader Arizona needs him to be? We’re starting to hear more and more about his fractured relationship with some of his old teammates in Pittsburgh. The Coyotes have to be hoping that something similar doesn’t happen to them.

Schmaltz is also an intriguing name. After being acquired from Chicago, he nearly scored at a point-per-game clip. Can he post similar numbers over an 82-game stretch? Schmaltz has all the talent to succeed at the NHL and now he has a golden opportunity to be one of the offensive catalysts on an up-and-coming roster that should push for a playoff spot this year.

The goaltending situation will also be something to keep an eye on. Raanta was limited to just 12 games last season after he had a career year in 2017-18. But once he was forced from the lineup Kuemper came in and did a nice job of keeping the Coyotes competitive. Does Raanta bounce back? Does Kuemper keep rolling? It might be a little bit of both.

Playoffs or Lottery: This is a tough one. It would be amazing to see the Coyotes sneak into the playoffs. The issue is finding which of the top eight teams they’ll finish ahead of this season. If the Rantanen hold out lasts long, can they sneak in ahead of Colorado, who finished in the last Wild Card spot last year? Maybe, but that’s still not a given. I think the Coyotes will miss the playoffs by less points (four) than they did last year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Dan Girardi hangs up his skates after 13 NHL seasons

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Dan Girardi has announced his retirement from hockey after 13 NHL seasons with the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I would like to thank all my coaches, family, friends and teammates for supporting me throughout my entire hockey career,” Girardi said in a statement. “I want to thank the New York Rangers for giving me a chance to fulfill my childhood dream of playing in the NHL. Throughout those 11 incredible years I have made so many friends on and off the ice. I bled Ranger blue and gave it my all for my team, the city and the Garden faithful.

“I also want to thank the Tampa Bay Lightning for helping me continue my career by giving me a chance to play for such an amazing organization, city and fan base. The last two years in Tampa Bay have been so much fun for me and my family. I will always fondly remember my time here. Finally, I want to thank my wife Pamela for always being there for me and holding down the fort and to Landon and Shaye for always being daddy’s No. 1 fans.”

Undrafted out of the Ontario Hockey League, Girardi was invited to Rangers camp in 2005 and earned himself a two-way contract. After a year-and-a-half in the ECHL and AHL, he was called up to the NHL where he would remain until the end of the 2018-19 season. He would help lead the Rangers to the postseason 10 times, which included a trip to the 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Following his 11 seasons in New York, Girardi was bought out of the final three years of his contract in 2017 and would sign on with the Lightning for the final two seasons of his career.

The 35-year-old Girardi finishes with 927 NHL games played, 56 goals, 264 points, and 1,954 blocked shots, the most by any player since the league began recording the stat in 2005-06. His 143 playoff games puts him 30th all-time by a defensemen.

“I gave my all every single night and left it all out on the ice,” Girardi said. “Now it’s time for the next chapter of my life to begin and I couldn’t be happier…and so is my body.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Previewing the 2019-20 Anaheim Ducks

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Worse. The Ducks have been competitive for over a decade, so it wasn’t surprising to see them take a step back last year. Unfortunately for Anaheim, their core is getting older and they really didn’t improve their roster very much over the course of the summer. They lost Corey Perry and some other depth players, but they didn’t add any significant pieces. They hired Dallas Eakins as their new head coach, but it’ll be tough for him to make a significant difference. It’s tough to argue that this group is better.

Strengths: Their biggest strength is between the pipes. John Gibson put together an incredible season last year. His numbers may not jump off the page but make no mistake, he was the reason they weren’t out of it earlier than they were. The 26-year-old had a 26-22-8 record with a 2.84 goals-against-average and a .917 save percentage last season. If the Ducks are going to improve this season, they’ll need some of their kids like Troy Terry, Max Jones, Sam Steel, and Max Comtois to take steps forward and need their goalie to stand on his head on a nightly basis. Gibson is one of the top goalies in the league and that shouldn’t change in 2019-20.

Weaknesses: Their overall depth has taken a hit over the last few years. Sure, they still have good players like Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique down the middle, and Rickard Rakell, Ondrej Kase and Jakob Silfverberg on the wings. They also have Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Cam Fowler on defense. The rest of the team has taken a bit of dip. Perry’s gone and Ryan Kesler is injured, and Patrick Eaves is likely retired. When you’ve been good for so long, these things will eventually happen.

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): 1. Let’s give Eakins some time. He’ll have plenty of challenges ahead with the edition of the Ducks. It’ll be important for him to assess the talent at his disposal quickly and he’ll need to figure out a way to get the most out of this group of players. Again, success probably won’t come as early as this season, but if the Ducks allow him to shape the roster how he sees fit, they could make strides in the near future. How much time he gets to build this program remains to be seen, but he can’t be on the hot seat yet!

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure: Getzlaf | X-Factor]

Three Most Fascinating Players: It’ll be interesting to see how some of the young players perform this season. Daniel Sprong, Nick Ritchie and Brendan Guhle should all be part of this roster when training camp ends. How much will they contribute though?

Sprong was acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins last season. In 47 games with the Ducks, he put up 14 goals and 19 points, which isn’t terrible. Can he build on that season? We’ve mentioned that Anaheim’s depth may be a problem for them this year, so getting added contributions from talented youngsters like Sprong will be key. There’s no denying his ability on the ice, but the 22-year-old needs to put it all together now. 14 goals in 47 games works out to a 24-goal campaign over 82 contests. Can he flirt with 25 goals?

Ritchie is also a fascinating case. The 23-year-old was drafted 10th overall by the Ducks back in 2014, but he hasn’t had as big an impact as many expected him to since turning pro. Ritchie had nine goals and a career-high 31 points in 60 games in 2018-19. He needs to pick it up. He needs to lead the next waive of young players in the organization. He’s got size, he’s got skill and now he needs to make an impact on this Ducks roster. He can’t just be another depth player.

As for Guhle, he was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres last season. The former second-rounder played in just six games with Anaheim last season. The Ducks have Fowler, Manson and Lindholm on their blue line, but there are openings behind those three players. Guhle has to show that he’s capable of making this roster and eating up some important minutes for Anaheim this season. The 22-year-old needs to add stability to the Ducks on the back end.

Playoffs or Lottery: They’ll be in the lottery this year. Again, they have some talented players, but they don’t have enough of them. It’ll take some time for them to draft and develop the next generation of Ducks, but that re-tooling had to begin eventually. No playoffs for the Ducks this year.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.