Life ain’t easy in a mascot costume, and when it gets to crunchtime, things only get harder. For Lee*, who has been mascoting (yes, it’s a verb) as face of the Charlotte Checkers, Chubby, for eight seasons, it’s the close ones that can be especially taxing on the body.
“We do a thing here late in the third period where if it’s tied or we’re down a goal, they may play a Rocky montage,” he told me in the lead-up to Saturday night’s game against the Hartford Wolfpack. “I’ll shadowbox at ice level and then run up the stairs like Rocky at the museum, and you definitely get to the top and you’re sucking wind. You’ve already worked a whole game.”
At Saturday’s game, not only did Chubby get the Rocky treatment, albeit a shortened version, he was also called on for some overtime work until Checkers forward Janne Kuokkanen mercifully ended the game with a sudden-death goal with three-and-a-half minutes left in the first overtime period.
“Overtimes are fun,” he told me after Saturday’s game, “but they’re even more intense while you are working them because every single stop in the action is some sort of crowd pump up. Whether it’s a dance cam or simple ‘Make noise’ hit, you have to bring a whole lot of extra energy.”
Lee can lose a lot of water during a game, but he stays hydrated during breaks in his dressing room during each intermission. After the first period on Saturday, he was already drenched. He drinks a little under a gallon of water throughout the game, usually going through his half-gallon jug and two 20-ounce bottles.
It’s all part of the job, one that he’s been doing for over two decades now. Besides, nothing can compare to the time he worked the longest hockey game in North American history as Chubby. We talked to 45-year-old Lee about that and other stories from his 22 years under the costume.
How long have you been doing this?
I’ve been mascoting for 22 years. I’ve done everything from college to minor league baseball and soccer. I also do backup work for other teams here in town.
How many teams would you say you’ve mascoted for?
Is mascoting your full-time job?
For me I’m an independent contractor, so I do this as well as work for other teams in a part-time capacity, but it all adds up to full-time for me. This is what I do.
What do you do in the Checkers offseason?
I’m part of a traveling act during the summer, it’s called the SweetRight Brothers and we travel around and do baseball. We’re the feature act of the night for baseball teams around the country.
How does one get started in mascoting?
A lot of people start like I did in college. I tried out for it while I was at N.C. State, and I got the job there; I was Mr. Wuf for four years. You make connections while you’re doing it. It was nice for me because we had a pro team in town with the Carolina Hurricanes, so when our second pro team, which was a women’s soccer team, came to town, the mascot that was with the Hurricanes was able to connect me with the people there, and you just go from there. It’s like any other athlete, you work your way up from minor leagues to the bigs.
What brought you to Charlotte?
I actually came here [because] I was done mascoting. I was with the Carolina Hurricanes at the time, and basically I was just done mascoting; I was getting older. I moved down here, had a friend that was getting into real estate, and we started a real estate investment company together and this was in 2008. That ended up not being a real good time for that. [laughs] So I ended up going back to what I knew, which was mascoting. The mascot community is a really small community. There’s only so many of us, so I actually knew the guy who was Rufus with the [Charlotte] Bobcats at the time. When I came down here he was like, “Hey, now that you’re down here, do you want to help me out and be backup for me and be my assistant and whatnot?” So I took him up on that and networked around here, and got back into mascoting.
What’s a main aspect of your job that people may not think about?
I think the struggle is just physical. Chubby is active, running up and down the stairs. I can lose 10 pounds of water in a night. You get it back through hydration and everything, but it is very taxing. It’s very hot, sometimes hard to breathe in the costume, so it takes a toll. When you put the costume on, it adds 40 degrees to whatever you’re feeling. It’s not that bad in hockey, but when you’re doing football or baseball, a 100-degree day, for you it feels like it’s 140 degrees. I used to do baseball and I don’t miss it at all.
So I planned to ask what your favorite sport to work is, but I suppose you just answered that.
[laughs] My favorite sport is hockey. You’re inside, on the ice, so it’s cooler for you, and hockey fans are a different breed, they’re fun to be around.
How many pictures do you pose for in a night?
I couldn’t even begin to guess — hundreds. The whole night I hear, “Chubby! Chubby!”
Is it tough to walk on the ice in the costume?
I think it comes naturally to me at this point. Not a lot of people know this, but during the intermissions, the ice is chopped up because the players have been skating on it for a whole period, so it’s more like walking on gravel than walking on ice. So even though Chubby’s feet are flat-bottomed, it’s still not that bad. Then at the beginning of the game, I’m on skates, so it’s just like skating.
What’s been your craziest experience while mascoting?
A couple years ago [May 10, 2018], the Checkers played in the longest game in North American hockey history. I think it was the second longest in hockey in general. We went five overtimes, started the game at 7 o’clock [p.m.] and ended at 1 a.m. You don’t pack for that. It’s during the playoffs, the game ends in a tie. We go into the first overtime, and it’s fine, but then it keeps going on and on, and you don’t pack the underclothes for that. So every intermission between the overtime periods I was having to come back and put old clothes onto a fan so they’d be dry by the time I could wear them for the next period. It was brutal. That was hard to get up out of bed the next morning.
We’ve talked a lot about the little-known struggles of mascoting, but it’s clearly a passion of yours to have done it for this long. What do you enjoy most about the job?
The best thing about the job is watching everyone’s face light up when I approach them. It’s such a great feeling being able to bring joy to people.
*So as to keep some of the secrecy behind the costume, Lee asked that we only identify him by his first name.