November 8, 2006

Fish Throw a Red Tradition

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It is a well-known and time-honored tradition that the Lynah Faithful toss fish onto the ice before the annual Cornell-Harvard game at Lynah Rink. However, what has always remained a mystery is how the ritual began.

Popular opinion states that Harvard started it all by tying a live chicken to the Cornell goal during a game in Cambridge, Mass., at some point in the 1970s. This stunt was interpreted as an attempt to mock Cornell’s agricultural college, and the Lynah Faithful selected fish as a retaliatory projectile to poke fun at New England’s fishing industry.

And while everyone from head coach Mike Schafer ’86 to The New York Times echoes this belief, William Ruskin ’74 claims it’s not exactly the truth.

After hearing of the chicken incident while listening to the radio play-by-play of the Cambridge game during the fall semester of his sophomore year, Ruskin and his friends began to plot revenge.

“Contrary to what was in The New York Times this week, there was no intention at the time to have any symbolism of the New England fishing industry,” Ruskin said. “We merely wanted to put something disgusting in their net … [and] getting a big smelly fish seemed like the best thing we could do.”

[img_assist|nid=19695|title=Ol’ ye faithful|desc=Fans pack the stands and hold up signs during the Harvard vs. Cornell game last year in Lynah Rink on Feb. 18.|link=popup|align=left|width=100|height=66]

When the Crimson came to town on Feb. 19, 1972, Ruskin was ready. He tucked a fish wrapped in plastic bags from the IGA supermarket under his parka and smuggled it into Lynah Rink. Right before the start of the second period, he and a friend threw the fish over the glass, watching it narrowly miss the head of a Harvard defender and come to a stop at the goaltender’s feet.

Ruskin stuck around for law school — partially because of his love for Cornell hockey — but that one instance was the only time he threw a fish onto the ice at Lynah. However, in the decades since, countless undergraduates have followed in his footsteps and an innocent prank has taken on a life of its own.

“It makes me feel proud to be a part of Cornell lore,” Ruskin said. “I certainly didn’t win any awards for scholarship. I think the thing about being at Cornell is having fun without hurting other people and getting through the winter.”

Every home game the men’s hockey team plays attracts a large, rowdy crowd, but the atmosphere is particularly electric when Harvard is on the other end of the ice. This year should be no exception, as the Crimson claimed its first victory in Ithaca since 1999 on its last visit, a 4-3 victory on Feb. 18. To add insult to injury, Harvard dispatched Cornell, 6-2, in the ECACHL championship game just less than a month later.

“We owe them for what happened,” said junior assistant captain Topher Scott. “We still have a bad taste in our mouth from the ECACs and them beating us here on Senior Night. … We’re looking forward to getting it all out on the ice and proving we’re a better team.”

Although Scott said that the players on the team enjoy the fishy tradition — “It adds fuel to the fire,” he said — Schafer and Andy Noel, the Director of Athletics, have a slightly different take.

“The worst that can happen [is] fans throw stuff on the ice and it penalizes us throughout the course of the game,” Schafer said. “I know that when I played we had to kill three penalties over the course of the game because of fans throwing things on the ice.”

Despite the good intentions of Ruskin and his co-conspirators, their attempt to defend the Red’s honor on home ice has inspired what Noel calls “inappropriate” demonstrations from fans. Schafer recalled seeing everything from an octopus to cans of tuna fly through the air from the stands to the ice, while Noel has witnessed Harvard players being hit in the head with fish and have fish parts slip inside their sweaters on more than one occasion.

“Sportsmanship is a lost art in many respects and I’m not ready to give it up,” Noel said. “I’m somebody that respects tradition a lot, but I don’t respect tradition that is insulting to our visitors.”

Noel affirmed that come this Friday night, the administration will continue its policy of removing students caught throwing fish from Lynah.

“I think our administration has done a good job, because at one point in time it was out of control,” Schafer said. “But Cornell students won’t be denied and if they want to do it they’re going to find some creative way of doing it. As long as they don’t cost us a penalty, that’s the biggest thing.”