It's one thing to spend seven years as Gainer the Gopher at Saskatchewan Roughrider games. It's quite another to be part of the iconic image of Team Canada's rapturous on-ice celebration, after their overtime victory against the United States on Sunday.
Welcome to the suddenly magical world of superfan Dave Ash, best known until now, besides his mascot stint, as the guy at big football and hockey games wearing a white helmet with a flashing light on top.
It was his large Canadian flag that forward Corey Perry borrowed and paraded around the ice, moments after players received their Olympic gold medals. Photos of Mr. Perry waving the flag appeared in newspapers around the world.
Mr. Ash was still buzzing Tuesday over what he called the highlight of 35 years of being just a little bit - well, sometimes a lot - different from other fans.
"I was stunned. We'd just won the gold medal, and they used my flag as a symbol of what they'd won," said the 55-year-old Regina tour operator. "It was incredible."
Mr. Ash, who paid $3,000 for his front-row seat behind the goal, said Mr. Perry approached him, gestured at the flag attached to a golf-ball retriever pole, and he handed it over.
"He grabs it and the next thing I know, he's got it … [Roberto]Luongo's got it, [Sidney]Crosby's got it, the whole team's got it.
"I saw the Olympic gold medal goal right in front of me, and then the players take my flag and parade it around as if it's the Stanley Cup. It was an Olympic moment for me, for sure."
Mr. Perry politely returned the flag to Mr. Ash before heading to the dressing room. "He said 'Thank you' and shook my hand. I was still a bit stunned. I think I said 'Congratulations.' "
Yet the pivotal pennant's date with destiny almost didn't happen. Security officials had prevented Mr. Ash from taking it in to previous games. "They said the pole could be used as a weapon. Yada, yada, yada," he recounted. And the flag itself was twice as large as Olympic regulations permit. "So, for the last game, I snuck it in," Mr. Ash said, noting that the pole telescopes down to a metre in length.
It's no surprise, perhaps, that Mr. Ash was in the limelight at the biggest-ever hockey game on Canadian soil. He has been a fixture at major sports events for years, holding up signs, operating wailing sirens, designing headgear that shoot flames high in the air, and wearing those helmets with the flashing light on top, switched on for every touchdown and goal scored by his team. Rarely does he fail to capture the attention of TV cameras.
"I'm at the games all the time, and I just want to have fun," Mr. Ash said, professing to be a laid-back, quiet kind of guy at home. "I like to think I represent all the Canadian fans who can't be there."
At the Canada-U.S. game, he handed out dozens of signs to other fans, reading "Hockey is Canada's Game" and "He Shoots He Scores." (When Canada's Olympic women's team played, Mr. Ash was there with placards carrying the message: "She Shoots She Scores.")
Sure enough, seconds after Mr. Crosby scored his golden goal, Mr. Ash sprang into action. "It happened right in front of me. He let it go so quickly, and then I saw the puck in the net, I thought: 'All right, gold medal!' I stood up, turned the light on and held my sign up."
He soon unveiled his now-famous flag that caught the eye of Mr. Perry. "That was my goal: to bring it out, only during the celebration. Had they lost, no one would have seen it."
A diehard Saskatchewan Roughrider fan, Mr. Ash hasn't missed a Grey Cup for 35 years, always in a prominent, front-row seat. His photo appeared in last year's official game program.
It was an early Grey Cup ticket that led to Gainer the Gopher.
"It started when we lost the Grey Cup in Toronto in 1976. We had to import Ralph the Dog [from the Calgary Stampeders]to cheer for us. We had a meeting at the Royal York and I said, 'Hey guys, we've got to have our own mascot.' We can't be importing the competition's cheerleader. So we conceived Gainer the Gopher."
Mr. Ash said he took on the job for seven years. "It was hilarious. But it was so hot in there, I lost five pounds a game," he said.
A reporter suggested that maybe Mr. Ash and his flag deserved a spot in the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. He didn't agree.
"Hey, I'm just a fan, buddy."
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