Al Sobotka, the Detroit sports folk hero and legendary Zamboni driver and operations manager, is suing the Detroit Red Wings after being fired earlier this season.
Who is Al and what does he mean to Detroit?
Al Sobotka has been a fixture at Red Wing games for over 50 years; starting as a teenager working at the Olympia, continuing at Joe Louis Arena and later Little Caesars Arena.
It is well-known, the tradition of Red Wings fans throwing octopi on the ice during games, mostly during the playoffs or ya know, whenever. The tradition dates back to the two brothers, Pete and Jerry Cusimano tossing the first on the ice in the early 1950’s, when it took 8 wins to claim Lord Stanley’s Cup (1952). Al Sobotka became synonymous with this tradition in the 90s when he picked them up off the ice and twirled them over his head to pump up the crowds of the winged wheel faithful.
In 1995, the Wings unveiled a large purple octopus as a mascot that would rise to the rafters during the playoffs. The mascot was named Al.
Why was he fired?
Before this week, the language regarding the firing has been super vague. “Sobotka and the Wings have parted ways” or “Al Sobotka is no longer with the organization.”
Not so much anymore. Sobotka was fired after urinating into the ice runoff drain between two zambonis following a practice. Per the lawsuit, this was seen by a male co-worker and reported. Two days later, he was admitting to doing it and placed on a suspension and terminated less than two weeks later after an investigation. The reason given for his firing on February 17th was “bad judgement.”
Al Sobotka is suing claiming discrimination both due to age and a medical condition. The lawsuit claims that Sobotka suffers from benign prostatic hypertrophy, or prostate gland enlargement. BPH, which is common as men get older, can cause an uncontrollable urge to have to urinate. The lawsuit claims there was an episode, and there was not a restroom nearby. Sobotka thought no one was nearby, as the area he was in was closed to the public..
Wings did him dirty.
This is tough. Al Sobotka is an icon with Detroit hockey. He is well-known and well-loved among fans and the sport, not just in Detroit. He has been with the Red Wings organization for 51 years, spanning across 3 buildings. The team mascot is named after him, kind of integral part of the culture.
I get the situation. He was caught by another employee urinating into an ice pit, not a good look, especially in today’s culture. If the Wings were going to let him go, put him on his suspension, let him finish the season and let him retire. The unceremonious firing just seems like a slap in the face. Or.. this was Sobotka’s first offense, of doing anything wrong, an immaculate record, barely missed a day of work in 5 decades? How about a warning? Or the week suspension and be done. Bad form.
Worth saying, that despite it all, Al Sobotka would return to the organization in a heartbeat, if Detroit offered him his position back.