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with disorderly conduct, possessing instruments of crime and disrupting meetings or processions before they were withdrawn.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

PHT Morning Skate: Players with most at stake in Cup Final; Bergeron’s postseason

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Rotoworld’s Gus Katsaros breaks down Patrice Bergeron‘s performance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Rotoworld)

• Travis Yost explains why getting an early lead in hockey is a good thing, and it’s not for the reason you might think. (TSN)

• Which team should you root for in the Stanley Cup Final? (ESPN)

• Which players have the most at stake in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final? (NBC Sports Boston)

Mats Zuccarello could be an intriguing addition for the New Jersey Devils. (All About the Jersey)

Nolan Patrick will have to take a big step forward next season. (Broad Street Hockey)

• As good as Morgan Rielly was for the Leafs this season, there’s a chance he might continue to get better. (Leafs Nation)

• There have been rumblings about Phil Kessel being traded to Minnesota, but is that a wise move for the Pens? (Pensburgh)

• D.J. Smith has had to pay his dues on his way to becoming an NHL head coach. (Ottawa Sun)

• Chicago Wolves head coach Rocky Thompson has an interesting strategy when it comes to pulling his goaltender. (Sinbin.Vegas)

• The Winnipeg Jets have to find a way to stop taking so many penalties. (Arctic Ice Hockey)

• The Stars will benefit from the increase in the salary cap this off-season. (Blackout Dallas)

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.

Marchand appears to avert injury scare in Bruins Cup tuneup

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BOSTON (AP) — Boston Bruins scoring leader Brad Marchand returned without missing a shift after appearing to hurt his left hand Thursday night when the team held an intrasquad scrimmage to tune up for the Stanley Cup Final.

Marchand bumped into Connor Clifton in front of the net ”and jammed his … I don’t know what he jammed,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.

”Injury risk was our biggest concern tonight. It will be Saturday when we practice at the regular time, and Sunday,” Cassidy said. ”He’s fine.”

With 10 days off between their sweep of the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference finals and Monday night’s opener of the best-of-seven Cup final against the St. Louis Blues, the Bruins scheduled the scrimmage to stay sharp.

”It was good to get out there, and we appreciate the support,” forward David Pastrnak said. ”It’s starting to feel real.”

Tickets were $20 and the 17,565-seat TD Garden was sold out, with the proceeds going to the Boston Bruins Foundation. Fans chanted ”We Want the Cup!” and ”Let’s Go Bruins!” and gave the team a standing ovation after Patrice Bergeron tipped a puck between his legs during a six-on-five, pulled goalie simulation before the buzzer.

Captain Zdeno Chara and Bergeron, the alternate captain, thanked the crowd after the scrimmage.

Marchand skated off flexing his hand near the end of the first 25-minute half. He appeared to be in discomfort on the bench, but was back for his next shift.

Cassidy left it up to the players to decide how much work they needed.

Goaltender Tuukka Rask played just one half. Chara, who missed the clincher of the East finals for undisclosed reasons, played the entire game. David Krejci showed up at the arena with an illness and was sent home, but he should be fine for Monday’s game, Cassidy said.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sharks head into uncertain offseason with key free agents

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SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) — If Joe Thornton comes back for a 22nd season in the NHL, it would only be with the San Jose Sharks. Captain Joe Pavelski is confident he will get a deal done to stay with the franchise he joined as a draft pick back in 2003.

The situation with the other major potential unrestricted free agent is far less certain. After Erik Karlsson‘s injury-plagued first season in San Jose ended with him sitting at home with an injured groin during a Game 6 loss at St. Louis in the Western Conference final, the star defenseman said he hasn’t thought yet about his plans for the summer.

”I’ve been treated with nothing but class and respect here,” Karlsson said Thursday. ”I’ve seen the best side of what this organization and this city has and I like everything I’ve seen. Now I have to kind of regroup and assess everything. A lot of things can happen. It’s a weird business we’re in. I enjoyed my time here. Whatever happens is going to happen for a reason.”

Karlsson had a less-than-ideal season after being acquired as potentially the final piece needed for a championship in a trade from Ottawa on the eve of training camp. He struggled to adjust to his new team early in the season before playing at an elite level for about six weeks when the Sharks looked as good as any team in the league.

Karlsson then injured his groin and missed 27 of the final 33 regular-season games before returning for the playoffs, lacking his usual burst as a skater. Even at less than 100% in the postseason, Karlsson showed flashes of his playmaking with 14 assists and two goals, including the overtime winner in Game 3 against the Blues.

But he was unable to play for a long stretch late in a Game 4 loss and was limited in a Game 5 loss before sitting out the third period. He couldn’t go at all in Game 6.

In the final game, the Sharks were also without Pavelski, who re-injured his knee in Game 5, and forward Tomas Hertl, who had a concussion. That left little in the tank for a team that won a pair of Game 7s already in the playoffs, including an epic three-goal comeback in the final game of the first round against Vegas after Pavelski left with a bloody concussion.

”If you lose your difference-makers, it’s difficult,” general manager Doug Wilson said. ”But this group always bounced back and found a way, for that we’re extremely proud. No excuses, line up, next man up, all those things that you hear, this group lived that. I’ll be honest: I’ve been in this business 40 years. I think the thing that epitomizes this group is the Vegas game, Game 7 where you see the emotional chaos of your captain going down, being carried off and how the group responded, showed you everything you needed to know about this group. I’ll remember that moment forever.”

Pavelski and Thornton have been integral parts of the Sharks for years. Pavelski was a seventh-round draft pick in 2003 and has scored 355 goals in 13 seasons, becoming captain and a fan favorite during his journey.

Thornton arrived in a franchise-altering trade from Boston on Nov. 30, 2005, turning the Sharks into a perennial Cup contender that can never quite win it all.

”They drive the environment,” coach Peter DeBoer said. ”They drive the messaging every day in here. From a coach’s perspective, those guys are invaluable people for us.”

Whether they come back is not yet certain.

The Sharks opted not to extend Pavelski’s contract last summer when he came off a 22-goal season hampered by injuries. But his level of play rose this year with a team-leading 38 goals and he will be eligible to hit the open market in July, shortly before his 35th birthday.

”I know I’m going to be playing hockey next year. Hopefully it’s going to be here,” he said. ”We love it here. I think something will happen, who really knows, but coming off a lot of emotions coming through the playoffs and that round, we’ll sit down and take a look at what will happen here.”

The situation with Thornton is simpler. If he wants to come back for another season at age 40, it would only be with the Sharks. He plans to sit down with his family and Sharks management before making his decision.

Thornton finished this season for a change after needing major knee surgery the past two years. He’s accomplished almost everything in a career, ranking eighth all-time with 1,065 assists and 14th with 1,478 points but hasn’t won a championship.

His teammates and coaches talked all postseason about wanting to win for Thornton and came close before ultimately falling six wins short.

”I didn’t buy into that,” Thornton said. ”I think that was more for you guys. I think this whole area needs a Cup. They’re definitely on the right track, and just disappointing for this area not to be playing, like I said, next week, but this was a really fun team to watch, entertaining team to watch, and an inspirational team to watch.”

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Arbitrator upholds Voynov suspension but says he served half

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — An arbitrator upheld Slava Voynov’s one-season NHL suspension Thursday but is giving him credit for serving half of it in 2018-19.

Commissioner Gary Bettman suspended the former Los Angeles Kings defenseman for the upcoming season and the 2020 playoffs after determining he committed acts of domestic violence. The NHL Players Association appealed the ruling.

Arbitrator Shyam Das upheld Bettman’s decision that Voynov should be suspended for the equivalent of one NHL season but found he should be credited with having already served 41 games of the suspension last season. So Voynov will now be eligible to return midway through next season.

This marks the third time Das has reduced a suspension in the past eight months. He reduced Nashville forward Austin Watson‘s suspension for domestic violence from 27 to 18 games and later shortened Washington enforcer Tom Wilson‘s suspension by six to 14 games for repeated on-ice hits to the head.

The Kings, who terminated Voynov’s $25 million contract in 2015 but retain his rights due to his status on the voluntary retired list, said in a statement Thursday that he will not play for Los Angeles.

”We will now determine the impact of the arbitrator’s decision on our rights to the player and consider our options going forward,” the team said.

The league said in a statement that it was satisfied the arbitrator supported the penalty in regards to the severity of Voynov’s actions.

The league added that ”while we do not believe Mr. Voynov was entitled to any ‘credit’ for time missed, we accept Arbitrator Das’ conclusion that the precise factual context here was unusual – including the fact Voynov has not played in the NHL since October 2014, and that he did not play professional hockey at all during the 2018-19 season.”

The NHLPA said in a statement that ”this fundamental due process right is designed to ensure that, even in difficult cases involving domestic violence, the NHL’s disciplinary procedures and decisions are fair and consistent. The NHLPA continues to work with the NHL to educate players about domestic violence.”

Voynov’s agent, Roland Melanson, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Voynov was suspended indefinitely in October 2014 after being arrested and accused of abusing his wife. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor, left the United States to go back to Russia and in July had the conviction dismissed by a judge in Los Angeles. His most recent suspension was imposed in April after he applied for reinstatement.

The 29-year-old Russian last played an NHL game on Oct. 19, 2014. He won a pair of Stanley Cup titles with the Kings in 2012 and 2014.

Since his last NHL game, Voynov played three seasons in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and won a gold medal at the 2018 Olympics. NHL players didn’t compete at the Pyeongchang Games.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports