What it means to be NAIT's time-honoured mascot
What is an ook? In the animal kingdom, it’s a snowy owl: a big bird known as an ookpik in the Inuit language of Inuktitut.
At NAIT, it’s also an identity, and has been since the students’ association adopted it as the polytechnic’s mascot in 1964. A keen hunter, it’s a symbol of resilience, determination, focus, integrity and all manner of things that command the kind of respect the Ook – as in the 6-foot mascot that riles up NAIT athletic crowds – does not get the day I meet Neil Lakhan (Civil Engineering Technology ’08).
Lakhan, who’s taken on the role of Ook mascot as a side job for the 2017-18 season, seems unhappy to find his disguise dumped on the athletics equipment room floor, rather than on the hook where he puts it after weekend basketball, volleyball, soccer and hockey games. The Ook deserves better than that, his reaction suggests. It means too much to NAIT.
And perhaps to him, too. For Lakhan, the question “What is the Ook?” gets personal. Here, we talk to the man, and alum, behind the mask about assuming the identity of one of NAIT’s most revered icons.
Techlifetoday: When you heard about this job, what did you think about the idea?
Neil Lakhan: I was interested. Last time I did it [as the MacEwan University Griffin in 2004] I really enjoyed it. The cool thing about being the mascot is you’re a totally different identity.
How would you describe yourself otherwise?
I’m a curious, adventurous person. I like to do different things. I like to learn new things. I generally keep to myself, too. I like to hang out with friends, but not the whole party animal thing.
How do you have to act when being the Ook?
You have to be more outgoing, more energetic, more cheerful. You have to be in people’s faces. Things you wouldn’t normally do.
How do you see your role as mascot?
To energize the crowd, the motivator. The mascot also provides a kind of identity for the team. And it’s comic relief. Kids love it because they’re not too interested in the game.
How do you keep your own energy levels and enthusiasm up?
It can be pretty demanding, having to be so enthusiastic. Relax. Enjoy it. Don’t try to be like a mascot on TV. Those guys are professionals. Do your own thing.
Does it get gross in the costume?
There’s a special spray. Antibacterial. It keeps it fresh.
Check out an Ooks game
Roughly 200 NAIT student-athletes compete throughout the academic year in a variety of sports, including hockey, basketball, volleyball and soccer. Check out the complete schedule online.
Tickets can be purchased at the door for $10 each. NAIT students and staff get in free; other students get in for $5 with valid ID. Kids under 12 are free.
See you at the game!
Is it your job to keep the costume in good shape?
You just hang it up and spray it. It’s pretty easy. Somebody will wash it. I’m not sure who does that. Luckily no one has ever spilled any drinks on it.
What’s the best sport to be mascot at?
I like hockey the most. The crowd is pretty enthusiastic. And with hockey, the game will stop and you can celebrate with the fans more.
Has anything strange happened while being the Ook?
I stumble a lot, with the awkward feet. You trip over them. And you have no peripheral vision. If someone asks for you, you can’t really tell where it’s coming from because you can’t really hear that well, either.
After the season is done, what do you think you’ll take from this? What will you learn about yourself?
I wouldn’t say it’s going to be life-changing. I think I might be a little more outgoing.
What’s one of the things you like most about the job?
If it’s a good night – for example, one night the men’s volleyball team won a big game. I come in at the end and cheer with them and they form a circle. They give you an Ook hug, all 12 guys surrounding you. That was a big high because you’re kind of part of the victory. You feel good about it.
We found the costume on the floor today. What was your feeling about that?
Why would someone do that? At least put it in its bag. It’s kind of disrespectful. Unless maybe they washed it. I never thought of that.