Computer programmer excels as gigantic plush raccoon

By Travis Webb

Nick Zacarov enters the Civic Centre at 5 on a Friday evening. It’s game night for the Ottawa 67’s, but the arena won’t open to the public for another hour or so.

Zacarov, 22, is stopped at the gate by a security guard.

“Excuse me sir, do you have a pass?” she asks.

Zacarov fumbles through his bag and finally produces a crumpled piece of laminated orange paper.

“Thank you,” the guard says. “You know if you wear that around your neck, you’ll have a much easier time moving through the rink.”

Zacarov smiles and thanks the guard.

A few hours later, he’s walking around the arena without his pass once again. He runs into another guard on his way towards the players’ locker rooms, but this one smiles as Zacarov strolls past.

Being an over-sized plush raccoon has its privileges.

Zacarov is the man behind Riley Raccoon Jr., one of three 67’s mascots. He takes on the persona as a respite from the rigors of pursuing a computer science degree at Algonquin College.

“It’s a good job,” says Zacarov. “I don’t want to become some fat computer geek.”

Instead, he comes to work twice a week and straps on a fat-suit under his raccoon get-up. It’s a bit of a change for someone who also trains in traditional Ukranian dance.

Zacarov, who lived in Russia before coming to Canada 12 years ago, says his dance experience helped him beat out 30 other applicants for the Riley Jr. job last year.

“But it’s hard to dance with such big feet,” he says.

His alter-ego wears what look to be size 16 raccoon shoes.

During the week, those shoes are locked away in a closet deep inside the arena. Before each game, Zacarov lugs his gear to a bare-bones auxiliary locker room near the players.

As game time approaches, Zacarov and his two partners — Riley Sr. and the Killer Puck — begin their pre-game routine. Zacarov becomes quiet and intense as he works through a set of stretches.

“I need to get focused before each game,” he says. “I need to get into character.”

A few minutes later, the three mascots are ready to go. While the suits have seen better days – Riley Jr.’s feet are wrapped in packing tape — the transformation is striking.

The soft-spoken Zacarov has been replaced by the ever smiling Riley Jr. He struts around with confidence born from total anonymity. But as soon as the head is off, Zacarov is back. It’s like flipping a switch.

“You can get away with anything in the suit,” says Matt McHale, a.k.a. Riley Sr.

A few minutes before faceoff, some energetic opera music— “O Fortuna” from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana — begins blaring over the arena’s PA system. The music floats down from the stands into the dressing room.

The three mascots run out the door, jumping and shouting. It’s a scene reminiscent of Hoosiers, only less frantic and starring gigantic stuffed animals.

It’s also the last time they’ll say anything above a whisper until the end of the first period. It’s against the rules for mascots to talk. They must protect their identity at all costs.

“We can’t let kids know we’re not real,” says Zacarov. “That would give them nightmares.”

So when a minor hockey team takes over the mascot room during the second intermission, Zacarov and his colleagues are forced to an isolated hallway under the stands.

The three symbols of 67’s pride sit slumped on the floor, their faces beaded with sweat. Riley Jr.’s head lies next to Zacarov and its smell — a healthy dose of body odour — fills the hall. Nobody seems to notice.

The 67’s win in regulation, but McHale still needs to make a post-game appearance before calling it a night.

“There are thousands of kids,” says Zacarov. “They all want hugs.”

By 10 p.m., Zacarov makes his way to the arena’s exit and is greeted by dozens of young girls. Just an hour ago, kids were all over Riley Jr. Now, Zacarov is ignored once they realize he’s not a hockey player.

He leaves the arena without a word.