The Anonymous Entertainer
Moose Hockey’s lovable mascot, Knuckles, puts on a show for fans while hiding behind the mask.
By Clark Forster
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Ryan Dorgan
THE MOST POPULAR member of the Jackson Hole Moose Hockey team can’t handle a puck and can’t play defense. Nor can he affect the scoreboard in any way. That’s because he’s a moose rather than a Moose. And moose don’t play hockey. This moose is the team’s mascot, and its name is Knuckles. Knuckles is furry, with three-foot-wide antlers. It wears a full hockey uniform; the only thing missing is a pair of skates. Knuckles can be seen winter weekends at Snow King Sports & Events Center fist-pounding with fans, pulling pranks on the opposing team, and pumping up the faithful Moose Hockey fans. Former college mascot (University of Denver) Tom Haigh conceptualized Knuckles seven years ago and played him through the 2014-15 season.
Knuckles is not the first Moose mascot. The Senior A—think fast and full-check skating by former Division I collegiate players and ex-semi-pros—JH Moose have had one since their inaugural season in winter 1997-98. Steve Tatigian, twenty-seven at the time and friends with several Moose players, created Hatrick, also a moose, and performed as the mascot for two seasons. Hatrick’s best trick was putting on ice skates and jumping beer kegs during intermission. Tatigian wasn’t sure how it would turn out the first time he tried it. “I didn’t think I was capable of doing this in the slightest,” he says. “It was more like, ‘Let’s just see what happens.’ ”
It happened that Hatrick was a jumper. But fans wouldn’t let him rest on his laurels. The more kegs he jumped, the more kegs were brought out the next time.
Eventually, the line of kegs on the ice got so long—ten—Tatigian couldn’t do it. When he bounced off a keg and went down on the ice, he tried not to cry while fans laughed and smiled. “I made nine, then crashed on ten like six times, and then I retired,” Tatigian says. But he came out of retirement when the Moose needed him.
The hockey team was still searching for Haigh’s replacement when the 2015-16 season started. Tatigian and Hatrick stepped in to do the team a favor after Knuckles wannabes bowed out. “Every-one thinks they want to do it and then it’s a pain in the ass,” Tatigian says. “It’s six hours, you’re in a costume all night, little kids are pulling on your tail, people are throwing stuff at you. … It’s a lot of work.” Not to mention the keg jumping, which was Tatigian’s schtick. But in 2015, at age forty-four, he was no longer willing to sacrifice his body by trying to jump nine or ten kegs. Fans didn’t seem to mind that he cut the number in half. Hatrick had come back to life, if only for a couple of games.
Wanting out of the role as soon as possible, Tatigian mentioned to a longtime friend and Moose Hockey fan that the gig was up for grabs. But his friend, who is a self-proclaimed introvert, had concerns about being in the spotlight. The beauty of donning Knuckles’ costume, Tatigian explained, is that no one knows who’s inside. The only rule of being Knuckles is being quiet about being Knuckles. Knuckles is anonymous. “It’s great when no one knows who you are, and it’s great not to blow your cover,” Tatigian says. “There’s a degree of mystery to it.” So the friend gave it a try early in the 2015-16 season. She’s still doing it. Going forward, as we quote her, we’re going to call her Ms. Knuckles.
“If there is a throng of young bucks that wanna pick on Knuckles, the security guards always have their eyes on them.”
– Ms. Knuckles
“THE FIRST FIVE minutes I knew I wanted to keep doing it,” says Ms. Knuckles, who attended the majority of Moose Hockey’s home games for six years before putting on Knuckles’ uniform. “It’s infectious to have that much of an impact on people. There are so many people you bring so much joy and happiness to in such a short period of time. It’s an adrenaline rush. I never want to give it up.”
Because she was a fan before she was Knuckles, Ms. Knuckles is familiar with the antics of mascots past. “There’s been [one] that jumps six or seven kegs on the ice,” she says. “This Knuckles doesn’t have the physical ability to do that. I just try to do whatever I can that night in that time and in that space. It’s all different. When I have the costume on and I’m out in the arena, I know that if I’m out in public view I’m always Knuckles. And I can’t just stop and do nothing.” Instead of jumping kegs, the current Knuckles dances and takes selfies with fans, pounds the glass around the rink, and generally frolics throughout the entire venue.
Ms. Knuckles’ game day begins with chugging two liters of water and a couple of Gatorades to counteract the sweat she’s sure to lose inside the heavily padded, furry costume. (The costume weighs thirty pounds.) She arrives at the Snow King ice rink an hour before the puck drops to suit up. By the time the doors open at 7 p.m., Knuckles is at the entrance to fist-bump every fan that comes into the arena. Once the game begins at 7:30, Knuckles knows the crowd is watching her every move. “Given my introvertedness in reality, the opportunity to escape and become Knuckles is a true gift,” she says. “I would be totally freaking mortified with 1,000 sets of eyes on me as an individual. The invisible force field provided with suiting up as Knuckles is an incredible disguise, which allows for self-expression I would seldom, if ever, be able to share otherwise. It is my very own real-life superhero costume.”
As active as Knuckles is, she needs to create time to cool off. “In the third period, when the arena has had 1,500 people in it for three hours, the temperature in that costume increases dramatically,” Ms. Knuckles says. “You go outside in the middle of January to get some air and the steam rises off you.” Despite a small fan circulating inside the mask, the goggles looking out from the head tend to fog up. That’s when Knuckles disappears. She takes the head off and sets it on top of another fan for as long as it takes the mask to defog. Knuckles makes sure no one is watching—although that doesn’t always work. “Some of the kids like to follow Knuckles around,” she says. “I had one little girl pull back the curtain on me once. I think the secret was out at that point.”
KIDS ADORE KNUCKLES. One boy gave Knuckles a dollar bill in appreciation of the mascot’s services. But some kids are more mischievous than magnanimous. Packs come together to try and pull Knuckles’ tail or use Knuckles as a punching bag. The arena’s security team, recognizable by their red hooded sweatshirts, has the moose’s back, though. “The security guards all take very good care of me,” Ms. Knuckles says. “If there is a throng of young bucks that wanna pick on Knuckles, the security guards always have their eyes on them.”
Knuckles’ night ends around 10:30, after every last hockey fan has left. Exhausted, she’ll drink a beer or two—the costume is safely back in storage—before going home. If it is a Friday night, Ms. Knuckles needs to rest so she can do it all again the next night. (Home games are always back-to-back.) But the energy she has after four-plus hours of entertaining 1,500 people isn’t conducive to sleep. “I get home, and it takes me an hour and a half to come down,” she says. “I think of it as putting on a superhero costume. This gives me a chance to be an extrovert where I don’t have to talk, nobody can see me, and I can still have the human interaction. It’s so gratifying.”