Doggone it -- he's 25!

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:24 AM ET

Grant Kelba remembers in detail the night he first walked his dog to a Flames game, hoping the team would let the pup stay.

Twenty-five years later, the dog's still there, earning his keep as the most famous mascot in hockey.

"Feb. 16, 1984: I was walking to the Saddledome with a costume that still smelled like glue in a garbage bag," said Kelba, who'd played Ralph the Dog at McMahon Stadium for four years before convincing the Flames to give the NHL's first mascot a shot.

"As I walked by the Corral, I realized I didn't have a name for him. Then I remember the old Centennials had a fan club called the Hockey Hounds. Notre Dame had the Hounds, too. I said, 'He's a hound,' and by the time I got past the Corral, I figured he should be Harvey the Hound."

Hired for $50 a game by the skeptical Flames, Kelba knew he didn't have much time to make an impression before he'd be tossed out the door with the $4,000 costume he made.

"They didn't think it was going to work, so they didn't even introduce me as their mascot," said Kelba, now 48.

"I sat down, and within a minute, some guy leaned over and said, 'Go to hell.' I immediately thought, 'This is going to be tougher than I thought.' He was tolerated or hated at best."

Although it took several years for fans to warm to the fun-loving furball, by the mid-90s, he was a household name kids and sponsors were falling all over, prompting the Flames to buy Harvey's rights from Kelba.

"Prior to that, the Flames didn't want anything to do with me -- they always kept me at arm's length," said Kelba, who lost up to 10 pounds a game using three costumes.

"The players weren't as accessible, and the mascot was gaining in popularity. For every request the players were getting, Harvey was getting six."

Even the players became fans, as evidenced by Mike Vernon's ongoing stunt suggestions or the curiosity of Doug Gilmour, Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts, who were caught by Kelba putting on Harvey's gear one night.

And while the introduction of the Jumbotron, the power ring, a game host, the Ice Girls and a DJ have changed Harvey's role significantly over the years, he's still beloved enough to warrant a cake presentation and a rendition of 'Happy Birthday' from the crowd tonight.

It's a low-key way of thanking the pooch for a quarter-century of more than 200 appearances annually, including everything from scuba diving, skiing and birthday bashes to weddings, bar mitzvahs and even the odd therapy session.

"Six years ago, Harvey got a call from a doctor trying to help a little girl overcome her fear of mascots -- they were going to Disneyland as a family, and they didn't want her terrified of the characters," said Chris Dingle, the Flames mascot coordinator since 1999.

"Harvey met her on the concourse one day, and from 200 feet away moved closer and closer. After a half-hour, she would not leave Harvey alone."

Neither could Craig MacTavish who made international headlines in 2003 when the frustrated Edmonton Oilers coach ripped Harvey's tongue out, prompting a five-minute ESPN skit.

The NHL hasn't had five minutes on ESPN since.

"That whole moment was never caught on film, but it lives in infamy and the good thing is no one got hurt," said Dingle, who subsequently fielded a request from Jay Leno and The Tonight Show to do a skit with Gene Simmons.

"You see so many mascot incidents where the law gets involved or someone is wearing an ice pack. No one could've scripted anything better than that."

Oh sure, Harv gets the odd bump from a gregarious drunk or a tongue-lashing from the occasional coach. But with 25 years of acrobatics, hijinks and hugs under his sizeable belt, he's now a Calgary sports icon.

"The way he was initially received, I didn't even think I would last 25 years, let alone Harvey," laughed Kelba.

"I mean, that's 175 in dog years."

And counting.


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