MONTREAL - Jean-Claude Tremblay's eyes open wide and his hands become animated as he talks about his mascots, many of which can be recognized by millions of people.
While the thought of spending time inside an oversized animal costume made of thick, plush fabric might be a nightmare for many people, for the president of Creations JCT Inc., it's been the stuff of his dreams since the '80s.
"Some people just can't be in a costume — they'll suffocate," says Tremblay, sitting in front of a wall plastered with cartoon sketches in the lunch room of his mascot factory. "In my case, I can live inside there. I feel like I'm home."
A largely self-taught mascot animator, Tremblay evolved over the years from wearing the costumes to making them.
"You don't improvise when you're a mascot," he says. "You either have it or you don't."
Tremblay's 930-square-metre factory northeast of Montreal is as colourful as the furry beasts it produces and while it's located in a non-descript industrial park in Mascouche, its creations are known to millions.
Foam heads, long rolls of fabric and spools of yarn are neatly organized on shelves along the walls — yet there is a sense of a playful silliness that pervades the factory.
A bright-green frog head sits on a shelf to dry, its bulging plastic eyes looking at a rack of larger-than-life vests, T-shirts and parachute pants.
Jean-Claude, 68, and his son, Dominic, 42, create between 150 and 200 mascots a year and sell them primarily to sports teams in North America, but also in Europe.
The Indianapolis Colts, Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros and the Ottawa Senators market their teams with Jean-Claude's creations, as do hundreds of smaller corporate businesses around the continent.
"The Colts won the Super Bowl with our costume!," Jean-Claude exclaimed, adding "there are no words" to describe how he felt seeing the odd-looking, cow-like animal on TV at one of the biggest sports games in the world.
But that game was bittersweet for Jean-Claude because it makes him think of the time his championship slipped away.
In 1994 he was animating Youppi!, the ginger-faced, lumberjack-looking mascot for the now-defunct Montreal Expos. The team was the best in baseball that year and many expected a World Series run before players went on strike, cancelling the rest of the season.
"When we went on strike I looked down at my hand and said, 'I just lost my ring'."
Jean-Claude and Youppi! go back a long way.
They met shortly after Jean-Claude was laid off from teaching art to inmates at a maximum-security prison north of Montreal in the late '70s.
Jean-Claude's brother, who was working for the Expos' season opener, landed him a job repairing the original Youppi!, who was created by the famed Harrison/Erickson company, the people behind some of the Muppet characters.
The Expos bought Youppi! at the time for $35,000, Jean-Claude said, but the costume quickly began to fall apart and the team asked him to fix it and to build a second, cheaper version.
"So I started my business in my basement, 30 years ago, without even knowing it," he said.
It took him a year to get the supplies and to create a new Youppi!, and when the Expos management saw how good he was at animating the mascot for a local radio station they hired him full time.
Over the last 30 years Jean-Claude and Dominic have perfected the art of the mascot.
"Nothing is impossible," said Dominic. "It all depends on cost."
The Ottawa Senators' Spartacat, for example, has "really expensive hair," Dominic said, with the fire-orange-coloured mane alone costing the NHL team about $1,000.
Most of their creations cost, on average, between $4,000 and $5,000.
They'll store the mascot for companies, wash it, and even provide the human to animate it during corporate and other events, Dominic said.
Jean-Claude and his son have about 30 people they have trained and can call to animate any of their creations.
The animators go through a three-hour tutorial where they learn to never take their head off in front of children or to talk while in costume.
"If a kid gets scared, you shouldn't tower over them but get down on one knee and look them in the eye," Dominic says.