Lapointe: Shameful Detroit Red Wings locked in hissing contest with banished octopus-twirler

April 20, 2022, 11:40 PM by  Joe Lapointe

Al Sobotka at Joe Louis Arena during the 2015 playoffs (Photo: AP photo)

So now we know: The cold-hearted firing of iceman Al Sobotka was a urination termination.

Because he needed to go Number One in a hurry and used a back-shop drainage sewer to do it, the Red Wings dissed on their veteran arena operations manager, Zamboni driver and octopus-twirler. They dismissed him Feb. 17 after more than half a century at three Detroit hockey venues.

“I am crushed, it’s like a bomb dropped on you every morning,” a tearful Sobotka told WDIV Wednesday after suing. “You get up, you have nowhere to go. Now, it’s just like mope around the house.”

His claim of age and disability discrimination was made Wednesday in the suit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court by Deborah Gordon of Bloomfield Hills, an attorney experienced in wrongful dismissal cases.

It alleges that Sobotka was fired not really for a single incident but because of his age – 68 – and his prostate condition, which causes frequent urination. 

In addition to financial suffering, Gordon charged, Sobotka suffered “humiliation, embarrassment, emotional and physical distress, mental anguish and loss of professional reputation.”

Sobotka said he thought he had privacy when he urinated between Zambonis in the garage area where the ice-surfacing machines are stored. He was reported by another male employee, although it is not known if the colleague witnessed this in person or on a closed-circuit television screen.

A request to the Red Wings for comment on Wednesday night was not returned. Typical of an Ilitch business, the Wings are one tight ship that rarely leaks.

Twirling the spirit animal

Sobotka is an immigrant from Poland and a graduate of Denby High School on Detroit's east side. He started at the Olympia in 1971 as a midnight sweeper after games. Sobotka grew famous at Joe Louis Arena during the 1997-2008 era when the Wings won four Stanley Cup championships.

In that the octopus is Detroit’s sacred hockey mollusk, fans constantly throw them on the ice in post-season play. So Sobotka developed the habit of twirling the slimy sea beasts over his head as he walked off the ice surface.

This earned him television exposure and local fame greater than even that of The Brow, who led Tiger Stadium cheers in the 1980s, and Dancing Gus, who performed his version of The Twist in the Cobo Arena balcony during Pistons’ games in the 1960s and 1970s.

Perhaps – with no playoffs again this season and none since 2016 – the bean-counters at LCA found less need for Sobotka. Wings’ fans still remember playoff games and nights of flying octopi. They have long memories.

Speaking of urination, some might even remember plumbing shortages at the Joe, which opened in 1979 and is now demolished. That old dump lacked enough restrooms. Women crowded into the men’s lavatories to fight for stalls and cops had to kick them out.

Some men urinated in the sinks. Others stepped into the staircases and did their business there after drinking giant cups of beer. After games, you could smell the evidence. Although the Ilitches must have been aware of these problems when buying the team in 1982, little was done to fix them.

Is it raining?

Another obvious question from this affair:

How did the Red Wings, the LCA, Olympia Entertainment and the Ilitches let a minor incident become a public hissing contest? They may soon wish they offered Sobotka a larger severance to go with a non-disparagement agreement. He turned both down.

Denise Ilitch (Photo: University of Michigan)

In 2005, another Ilitch employee sued for wrongful dismissal. Gordon also represented the employee, Cheryl F. Good, a friend of Denise Ilitch. Under oath, Gordon got Denise Ilitch to explain the family rupture between her and her brother, Chris, who now reigns as king of Ilitch Village.

Marian Ilitch, their mother, sided with her son and against her daughter in the dismissal dispute.

In discussing her mother’s explanation, Denise Ilitch testified: “She said that she didn’t give a rat’s ass and that she didn’t care . . . She just kept saying 'I don’t care. I don’t care, little lady, you got that? I don’t care’ . . . She just screamed a lot.”

Sure could be interesting if Gordon gets any Ilitches or Olympia executives under oath for a deposition as to how things work there. And perhaps Sobotka can explain a business built in part with public money that rarely levels with the public about its business affairs.

With all the media relations specialists working in the octopus-like Ilitch empire, you would think one of them would have had the courage to say to the boss: “Hey, Chris, there just might be a better way to handle this Sobotka thing.”

Then again, that is unlikely in an operation that tinkles on your shoe and tells you it’s raining.

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