WILKES-BARRE – Fans at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins games know the large anthropomorphic bird walking around the arena as Tux, but one young fan who attended the Penguins’ Dec. 27 game against Lehigh Valley Phantoms knows the mascot by another name.
“Chad!,” 5-year-old cancer survivor Amelia Nankivell screamed as she ran to Chad Spencer, the man behind the mask, before he donned his Tux costume for the 4:05 p.m. tilt. Spencer recently performed at Amelia’s birthday party as a magician, one of his other passions, and the birthday girl acted as his assistant. Spencer’s relationship with Amelia may extend beyond his role as Tux, but the bonds the costume allows him to build are one of the reasons he loves doing what he does.
Spencer, 43, had his first experience as a mascot when he was a teenager. While his country singer mother, Robin Pickle, performed at a telethon, Spencer was given an opportunity to entertain the crowd as Darth Vader. He said it made him feel like a rock star, and he was given that opportunity again when he was hired to portray Rory the Tiger, mascot of the Western Hockey League team Medicine Hat Tigers. After a year of cheering the major junior team on, Spencer got his first chance to mascot for a professional organization, the Calgary Roughnecks lacrosse team.
Spencer performed for 18,000 people at each Roughnecks game, but with only eight home games a year and a 3-hour drive to the Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta, he was forced to continue his search for a permanent home. He found one in 2006 with the Penguins.
The game was the Penguins’ 16th home game of the season, and Spencer started it just like the others: He put Tux on, climbed the stairs from Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza’s locker room to the main concourse, took a few deep breaths and became the mascot. As he entered the crowd from the doors near arena section 102, Tux posed for photos, joked with Phantoms fans and used his squeaker to lend a cartoon-like voice to the mascot.
The concourse was so full of people that most only had room to waddle forward; in that sense, Tux didn’t look out of place. The dense crowd meant that Tux had a lot of potential interactions coming his way, and he took to each one with a perceived excitement: he begrudgingly took a photo with a group of female Phantoms fans in section 210. He gave an autograph in section 214 and he posed as a mannequin in the arena store’s window to scare oncoming passersby.
After rounding the entire concourse and returning to his locker room, Spencer took off Tux’s feet, put on skates and took a pre-game skate around the ice, waving a WBS flag to energize the crowd.
After his skate, the Tux feet went back on; Spencer said he has modified almost every aspect of Tux during his nearly 10-year tenure, including the mascot’s newly-soled feet. Tux made it back upstairs and to section 124 (under the scoreboard) just in time to start a “let’s go Pens” chant at puck drop with his drum; he was then instructed by his new interns to head to section 110 for the presentation of the McDonald’s Small Fry of the Game. Tux jumped into the crowd at section 108, four sections before his destination, to interact with fans and provide pantomime commentary on the game. After presenting the prize to a young fan, Tux made his way to section 112 to hand out Blu-rays at the game’s 5-minute mark. Then it was back to the locker room to change into a referee shirt for intermission youth hockey.
“I wore a pedometer once during a game,” Spencer said. “I went 5 miles. I like to be known for being everywhere.”
Tux’s second period was similar to the first: the Penguins hadn’t yet found a response to their opponent’s scoring, but it didn’t stop their mascot from high-fiving children and purposely obstructing the view of visiting fans in his path through the crowd. Tux made it back to the bowels of the arena to drive a 4-wheeler onto the ice during the second intermission (Spencer said it was his fastest yet), and then returned to the crowd to help rally a goal out of the scoreless WBS offense.
The game ended with the Phantoms handing a 3-0 loss to the Penguins. Most of the players on the ice are fighting for future spots on NHL teams, and Spencer has the same goal in mind. He’s had interviews with Dallas, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, but none have advanced. Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins Boosters President Kathy Thomas said, the day Spencer gets his NHL call-up will be a bittersweet one.
“It means everything to have a mascot like Tux,” Thomas said. “He’s great with people of any age. You go to other events and mascots don’t interact, but here it doesn’t matter if you’re a fan of the other team or not. As much as we want to see him get ahead we don’t want him to leave.”
Before the game started, a sweat-soaked Spencer returned to his locker room after Tux’s pre-game trek around the concourse. He was clearly winded, and was quick to joke about mascot stereotypes due to the the hygiene choices forced upon him by his restrictive work uniform.
“When you’re a mascot it’s like doing everything with a gas mask on,” Spencer said. “That’s why mascots aren’t so popular; they’re known to be sweaty dudes. I start sweating, like, two minutes after I have it on and it doesn’t stop.”
But there was a 5-year-old sitting in section 219 who disagreed. During the last two minutes of the game, Spencer made his way to visit Amelia, as Tux, and spent the remainder of the game seated next to his former magician’s assistant. When asked whether she liked hugs more from Spencer or Tux, Amelia paused and gave a simple, truthful answer.
Reach Gene Axton at 570-991-6121 or on Twitter @TLArts