Calgary mascot creator reminisces about his time as Harvey the Hound
Harvey was the Calgary Flames' “first-pound draft pick” in 1983 at 6'6" and 200 lbs
Grant Kelba was just 23 years old when he crafted a lovable, life-sized dog costume that ultimately would become the Calgary Flames mascot for the next 39 years—and counting.
Harvey the Hound was the NHL’s first team mascot, pitched by Kelba 40 years ago. Kelba made his official debut as the lovable mascot on Feb. 16, 1984, but it wasn’t always an easy ride.
“It’s from very humble beginnings,” Kelba tells Calgary Citizen.
Kelba was just “a kid” performing as Calgary Stampede mascot Ralph the Dog for four years when he saw the Flames were moving into the Saddledome—a new, state-of-the-art building at the time.
An idea with no plan
A friend of Kelba’s suggested he pitch a team mascot to the Flames and a meeting was arranged with former Flames general manager Al Coates, who was the PR director at the time.
“I went down there and met with him and his assistants and immediately they slapped about eight to 10 inches of mascot proposals all stacked up in front of me, and they said, ‘OK, so how does yours differ?,” Kelba explains.
“So I took a few seconds and I looked through them a little bit and I pushed them all across the desk, right back at him. And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what; I will build it all, create it, manage it, and I’ll take care of it.’”
Kelba said if it doesn’t work after one game, the Flames wouldn’t hear from him again.
“If it doesn't work, you’re not stuck with a $4,000 costume. I’ll take all of the risk and all of the issues that could come with this.”
Starting from scratch
After getting the go-ahead from the team brass, Kelba went home and told his mom.
“She said, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool. Now, what are you going to do?’ And I said, ‘I don't know, can I borrow $1,000 so I can build a costume? And she said, ‘OK, I believe in you.’ And she lent me $1,000.”
That’s when Kelba rolled up his sleeves and got to work building a mascot from scratch. His only experience in the sports world was from being an athlete himself, armed with a wrestling scholarship. He didn’t know how to build a costume.
“I’d never done that before,” he says, adding he started researching everything he needed to know to build a costume in his basement, but this was before the internet was available.
“I went to the library and got a book on dogs. I knew I wanted a dog costume because of the loyalty and the puppy nature of it all. And I still have the book actually, the late fees are gonna kill me.”
Kelba decided on a Siberian husky because of its teamwork abilities, strength, and resilience.
“And I wanted to make it a puppy so he had that playful nature,” Kelba adds.
Grant as Harvey the Hound
Improvisation and inspiration
Next came the hard part.
“It was really hard to do at the time because we didn’t have the right kind of fur available,” Kelba says.
“I couldn't find the right kind of fur, so I ended up building the first costume with real sheepskin pelts. I bought six pelts and sewed them all together to make Harvey—and boy, was it hot.”
Now it was time to present Harvey to the Flames organization. They told him to come out to the Feb. 16, 1984 game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Kelba assured them they wouldn’t be on the hook if it didn’t go well. That night, Flames legend Doug Risebrough got a hat trick as the Flames downed their opponents 10-3.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
“I went from game to game and Harvey’s been there ever since.”
Sparking a trend
Harvey the Hound inspired the rest of the NHL teams to create their own mascots, with some even reaching out to Kelba for his expertise.
That inspired Kelba to start a business with a friend doing costume and mascot design, which started to build costumes for other organizations.
Having a team mascot was more common with other sports such as football, but hockey was often considered too fast-moving to be able to rally fans between whistles.
It wasn’t an easy ride at first.
“I remember my first game, within the first 10 seconds of Harvey being introduced at the beginning of the game, I sat down on the stairs and a guy leaned over to me and he said, ‘You go to hell,’” Kelba recalls.
“I was like, ‘Oh, OK, this is gonna take me a little bit longer than I thought. At Harvey’s first game in ‘84, I took a lot of heat. But I had a lot of support, as well. I put myself out there."
No easy feat
The original costume was made out of sheepskin, but Kelba eventually crafted 22 costumes to alternate, improvising with what he had available.
“Harvey has never changed his look since the very beginning. The first costume’s eyes were actually made out of ping-pong balls that were painted blue. And the domes over the eyes were Easter egg moulds that I found and cut out and put in place.”
Kelba says it was no easy feat to play the role of Harvey night after night.
“Well, it was hot,” he says, adding he would lose up to 10 pounds a game through sweat.
“But also all of your senses are muffled so you can’t hear and you can’t see. You can’t really feel and you really don’t know where you are.”
Grant as Harvey in a pool.
A second skin
But eventually, the costume became a second skin for Kelba. He learned how to maneuver in it.
Kelba would walk on the glass, water ski, downhill ski, and even rode a motorcycle up and down Crowchild Trail in the costume.
“There wasn’t anything that I couldn’t do in that costume and there wasn't anything I wouldn’t try.”
Kelba continued donning the mascot costume until 1999.
“Harvey started to gain popularity,” Kelba explains, adding he owned the costume and trademarked it when he created it.
“I went game to game and then they offered me a three-year contract. And then at the end of that three-year contract, they offered me another three-year contract. And then they wrapped that up halfway through and offered the five-year contract.”
In 1996, the Flames wanted to buy not just the costume from him but the trademark, too.
He ended up staying on for a few more years as a contract employee after selling it to them but after 15 years of moonlighting as Harvey, Kelba was ready to retire.
“I woke up one morning after a particularly tough series of games and I stumbled into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. My eyes were crusty and my skin was sore,” Kelba says.
“You’re about to turn 40 and you’ve spent your entire adult life as a dog, it’s time to do something else. So I packed it in at the end of the ‘99 season.”
Grant with his wife and Harvey the Hound at a game
But he didn’t retire completely. Kelba started an internet travel company, owning one of the first 500 domains in Canada at the time. He’s now semi-retired, dabbling in property management and commercial real estate.
“I keep busy. Working out all the time and still having a lot of fun.”
Kelba says it’s been fun watching Harvey from afar, and remembers the mascot’s infamous run-in with Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish in 2003 when the coach ripped the pup’s tongue out. He was already retired by then.
In Kelba's time as Harvey, he remembers playfully taunting the Oilers over the years, blowing them kisses for example—but always he stayed a stick distance away.
“When Harvey’s tongue got pulled out, I laughed and laughed. I was like, ’Wow, they finally got him’.’”