GREATEST MOMENTS | New Hampshire authored college hockey’s most famous fish tale

Ice hockey under the lights

UNH-greatest-1Traditions are one of the greatest things about collegiate sports.

New Hampshire’s traditions include hockey success. Rod Langway, the first former Wildcats player inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, led UNH to the Frozen Four in 1977. The women’s team won the AWCHA title in 1998, the first women’s collegiate national championship.

Another tradition started at a UNH men’s hockey game in the 1970s, one of the most unique in the history of collegiate sports. It continues today, making it the sports moment judged the greatest in school history.

Roger Brown explained “throwing out the first fish” in a story for UNH Magazine in winter 2001 .

His name is Travis Sawayer, but UNH knows him as “the fish man.”

When the men’s hockey team is playing, he can usually be found in the front row of Section 120, ready to toss out the fish after UNH’s first goal.

“It goes way back in my fraternity,” says Sawayer, a sophomore and Zeta Chi brother. “We used to have to buy the fish, but now it’s donated by a local fish market. We pick it up on Friday. Some people complain about the smell, because the fish sits in the entryway to our house in a plastic bag — no ice, nothing —  until the game.”

According to Bob Norton, a former UNH assistant coach, the fish-tossing tradition began in the early 1970s.

New Hampshire throwing out the fish“It goes back to when we were playing Bowdoin,” Norton says. “Of course they were in Division II, and our program had gone way past theirs. I remember (the UNH fans) threw out this little dinky thing and they called it a Division II fish. I guess they were trying to tell Bowdoin they weren’t worthy of a first-rate fish.”
Andy Buckman customarily removes the fish from the ice. A former Whittemore Center employee, he now works in Exeter, but still makes the trip to Durham on game nights. And what does the custom symbolize to him? “The explanation I’ve been given is it’s the fans telling the opposing goalie to fish the puck out of the net,” he says.

There are many famous fish stories. For example, there’s the time the UNH mascot, Wild E. Cat, attempted to throw the fish in Snively Arena. Instead of landing on the ice, the fish hit a Yale assistant coach.

“He was an Italian guy, and they called him the Godfather,” UNH coach Dick Umile ’72 relates. “They now call him the Codfather. The guy came up to me after the game, and I apologized. What could I say? It slipped.”

One of Umile’s favorite fish incidents occurred in the early 1990s. At that time, the home team received a penalty if fans threw objects on the ice.

“At all these different rinks people were (throwing) things — tennis balls, newspapers — and it was really holding up the game,” the coach recalls. “It’s the Maine weekend, and the cops won’t let the kid in with the fish. I’m in the office before the game, and the students come to get me. So I go down there, get the fish from the cops, and we’re walking in with the fish in the bag. The kids say, ‘But coach, we’re going to get a penalty.’ I say, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll kill the penalty. Just throw the fish.'”

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POSTSCRIPT: As one UNH fan discovered in February, throwing out the first fish sometimes comes with, uh, a catch. But we’re laughing with you, not at you:

• New Hampshire Hall of Fame

Above: Travis Sawyer throws out the first fish after a New Hampshire goal. (Courtesy UNH Athletics)

Monday: Middle Tennessee and Milwaukee
Tuesday: Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State
Wednesday: Missouri-Kansas City and Morehead State
Thursday: Murray State and Navy
Friday: Nebraska Omaha and New Hampshire

Mike Bambach

Mike Bambach is senior web producer for ASN.