ERIE, Pa. — Nick Fitzsimmons endured a hard hit in the Erie Otters’ first home game of this season, and he isn’t even on the team.
He wasn’t even on the ice at Erie Insurance Arena when he crashed face first into the rink’s glass. It’s a good thing his huge head cushioned the fall.
“It wasn’t too bad,” said Fitzsimmons, 17, a senior at Central Career and Technical School who has served as Shooter, the Ontario Hockey League club’s mascot, since late in the 2009-10 season. Along with the oversized mascot head, the outfit also includes protective hockey pants and shoulder pads. Besides, he wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. “There’s nothing like it in the world,” Fitzsimmons said.
He has met great people on the ice, in the crowd and throughout the Erie community during his time as mascot. He has enjoyed memorable moments, like the time he took a broom from a Windsor Spitfires fan expecting to see his favorite team sweep the Otters out of the 2010 playoffs. The Spitfires ended Erie’s season that night. While Fitzsimmons had that broom in hand, he said, “I had fans cheering for me.”
Fitzsimmons often has been the center of attention at games. That’s a key aspect of his job. “Shooter is just really, really excited about getting the crowd into it,” Fitzsimmons said. “If you can get a 10-year-old to drop his parents’ iPhone to watch a hockey game, you did your job.”
He has evolved into an enthusiastic mascot, and club officials have asked him to be more visible on the ice and interact with fans more this season.
“Being a mascot is a challenge because you have to fill many roles,” said John Frey, the club’s director of operations. “To kids, you are a lovable character. To some fans, you help bring energy to the crowd. To the organization, you can be the face of the franchise at times. Nick is doing a good job of balancing those different parts of the position and learning to get better in each area.”
Fitzsimmons evaluates the crowd while skating around the ice before games. “I gauge how many people are in each section, how the crowd is going to react if I go over to them,” he said. “If I see a busy section or a lot of kids, I definitely (head over). I like to make it up and down each and every section.”
Fitzsimmons said he enjoys “putting smiles on people’s faces (so they know) they’re getting a good product by being there.”
Club officials asked Fitzsimmons to replace his sneakers with furry paws this season. Those paws caused him to smack into the glass during the Otters’ home opener Oct. 5. But he conquered a larger challenge to become the mascot three years ago.
Fitzsimmons didn’t know how to skate when he learned about the job opening. He attended a couple of public skating sessions before donning the costume for the first time. “I kind of learned skating with the mascot (outfit) on,” he said.
He hopes to continue as the Otters’ mascot after graduating from high school. Fitzsimmons, who earns $35 per game, also dreams of becoming a professional mascot.
“That would be the best job in the world,” he said.