By Gareth Bush
When Grant Kelba wants to reminisce on his career with the Calgary Flames, all he has to do is peer at the gold protruding over his right ring finger.
Having donned the red and orange for 15 years, including during the team’s only Stanley Cup victory in 1989, Kelba has great memories as a former face of the franchise.
But Kelba wasn’t an impact forward, a key defenseman or star goalie. In fact, he never played in the NHL. Better known as Harvey the Hound, Kelba was the first mascot in league history.
“I’ve been out of it for 15 years but people are still like, you were the original?” he says. “It still carries weight and has significance here.”
It didn’t start out that way, however. Despite their prominence in the NBA and MLB since the 60’s, the NHL never considered having mascots until Kelba knocked on Flames management’s door in 1984. The meeting was full of skepticism, but Kelba, who was the mascot for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders at the time, sold the idea.
“I told them I’d show up, perform, and if it doesn’t work after one game, they can just tell me I’m done and move on. It’s been 30 years and Harvey’s still there.”
Strutting in a homemade costume for a stipend of $50, Harvey the Hound made his debut on Feb. 16, 1984, in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kelba came up with the name 20 minutes prior to puck-drop, inspired by the now defunct Western League’s Calgary Centennials’ fan club the Hockey Hounds. Following his pregame introduction, the jury was out on what the fans thought. Kelba found out rather quickly.
“As the game started I sat down in the stands and a guy leaned over to me and goes, ‘Go to hell!’ ”
With Jumbotrons and video boards having not yet arrived, in-game entertainment was much different in the 80s. All eyes were on Harvey between whistles and it wasn’t just fans who took notice.
“It was really amazing how much the players watched me,” he said. “I remember Mike Vernon giving me suggestions on different signs to hold up and different acts to do. There was a time when I came back to my dressing room after the game and (Doug) Gilmour, (Joe) Nieuwendyk and a few other guys were trying on the costume to see what it was like inside the head.”
Soon enough, Harvey had become one of the NHL’s prized possessions. Kelba says he received more than 2,000 booking requests a year, more than all the players combined, attended NHL All-Star Games and garnered a 96 percent approval rating from the Flames season ticket holders in the 1980s. The league even sent him to Japan when the Flames and San Jose Sharks opened the NHL season in Tokyo in 1998.
Things were going so well that the once skeptical Flames bought the rights to Harvey in 1996, paying an amount Kelba described as 10 times more than he would have settled for.
“It never became an I-told-you-so moment, but boy it sure was vindication,” he said. “I had proven that a mascot could work at a hockey game.”
Other pro, high school and college teams also contacted Kelba to design mascots for their clubs.
When Kelba retired following the conclusion of the 1998-99 season, the Flames gave him a commemorative Cup ring that he re-designed to honor his, “fifteen years of service and not a championship,” he said. “I was there for the fans, not the team.”
The pinnacle of Harvey’s fame came on Jan. 20, 2003 when Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish ripped Harvey’s signature red tongue out of his mouth after he had been taunting the team from behind their bench. Kelba described the incident as a long time coming. When MacTavish was playing for Edmonton in the 80s, Harvey was often taunted and sworn at by the Oilers beneath the stands before games.
“The language was pretty bad,” said Kelba, “so I’d blow kisses at them and always stand just out of stick-swinging distance. So my first reaction (to the incident) was, ‘They finally caught him!’ I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.”
The clip of the incident became so popular that the Jay Leno Show contacted the Flames to bring Harvey on the program to re-stitch his tongue live on air. The Flames declined the invitation.
The Oilers remain one of only four NHL teams without a mascot.
Kelba says he would never have gotten that close to the opponent’s bench, citing the importance of professionalism with other teams in front of kids. He vehemently denies ever ripping up a Vancouver Canucks jersey during the Flames’ playoff run in 1989, a rumor that has became an urban legend over the years.
His nephew Scott now occupies the role of Harvey, a character that has become a fixture in Calgary’s sporting world.
“I look back with tremendous pride and the fact that my nephew is still Harvey the Hound tells me that I’ve created a legacy for my family as well,” he said. “I’m just amazed at how much it still means to people.”