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Before Cosmo there was Tricolo

The story of the infamous Sherbrooke Canadiens mascot

The 1986-87 season was a record-breaker for the Sherbrooke Canadiens, the American Hockey League farm team of the Montreal Canadiens. In their third year of operation, not only were they smashing their franchise records, but those of their predecessor, the Nova Scotia Voyageurs, as well. With Vincent Riendeau having a remarkable rookie season in net for the team, and Serge Boisvert, Karel Svoboda, and Gilles Thibaudeau providing the offence, the team was on a roll finishing the season at the top of the AHL.

Yet attendance rose only slightly, disappointing the organization that believed winning on the ice would draw the crowds. So on March 22, 1987, the Canadiens unveiled to an unsuspecting fanbase a voiceless, blue-furred, rosey-cheeked, puppy-dog-eyed amorphous mascot sporting the classic Canadiens jersey that the AHL team wore at the time.

According to the creator of the mascot, it took around 80 hours of design time to come up with the final concept of a mascot whose design parameters included not being related to any animal in particular and to follow the red, white, and blue colour scheme of the franchise, while not only appealing to the kids, but also to the adults.

The only problem was it didn’t have a name. The Canadiens gave their fans the final three home games of the regular season to submit name options, before finally baptizing the mascot in front of a packed house for the team’s first playoff game against the Nova Scotia Oilers.

And so Tricolo was born, on April 10, 1987, to entertain and engage the fans who would come to the Palais des Sports.

La Tribune, 1988

Pierre Creamer, head coach and general manager of the team, said that the organization wanted to add an element of entertainment to their game presentations. “We want there to be some fun in the stands. So if we happen to lose one night, at least people will leave happy of their evening nonetheless.”

Tricolo immediately made a giant impact, but not necessarily as intended. Sure he got fans out of their seats with his comedic routines, but he gained notoriety by immediately rousing the fury of the Oilers players who had to deal with the mascot during the games, using such antics as waving a chicken on a stick in front of the players.

It earned Tricolo a water-bottle shower, but the mind games earned the Canadiens a 6-1 win to take the lead in the series. The Canadiens made it all the way to the Calder Cup Final that year, however by the final series, the officials began enforcing a strict policy forbidding Tricolo from antagonizing players in the penalty box after several complaints were received.

The 1987-88 season was no different as the mascot’s infamy grew along with the attendance. The organist at the Palais des Sports, Mario Gosselin, and Tricolo began forming a strong tandem for pumping up the crowds with Tricolo’s coordinated antics set to amusing music. Fans would literally wait at intermission for Tricolo to finish whatever routine he had conjured up for the occasion before leaving their seats for refreshments.

It was his continued in-game antics that would cause the most concern with the league.

In a game against the Rochester Americans, after riling up the opposing bench all night, and after a late third-period scuffle on the ice between players, Tricolo came rushing at the Amerks bench with a shovel, inviting Amerks head coach John VanBoxmeer to a fight. VanBoxmeer replied by simulating a charge of his own at the mascot that was taunting him all game, while brandishing a hockey stick. The act cost the head coach a bench minor penalty.

By the 1988 playoffs, his own club had told Tricolo to tone down his antics due to league pressure, despite how loved he was by the fans. It was new general manager Andre Boudrias who disliked Tricolo’s behaviour. In silent protest, Tricolo showed up at centre ice with arms and legs chained and wearing an orange jumpsuit to the delight of a crowd fully in support of their blue buffoon, above even the organization itself.

Tricolo was subject to continued complaints from opposing teams and game officials in the 1988-89 season. The Montreal Canadiens, directly, received a letter in November from the AHL that three teams had already filed complaints against the mascot for coming too close to the opposing team’s bench and penalty box to distract the players.

Although complaints from Rochester and Springfield were pretty straightforward, the one filed by the Maine Mariners was a bit more serious, and the height of Tricolo’s infamy.

A tasteless incident

When the Mariners played at the Palais des Sports in November of 1988, Tricolo walked around waving a Japanese flag, wearing a headband, and bowing down in a mocking way, while organist Gosselin played some stereotypical Japanese jingle; a direct attack on Mariners captain Steve Tsujiura, a Canadian of Japanese descent. Every time Tsujiura took a hit or missed a pass, the jingle was played.

A low-point in the Sherbrooke Canadiens history

Mariners head coach Mike Milbury walked up at one point to Gosselin demanding he stop with the “racist and demeaning song,” but after conferring with the Canadiens’ director of marketing, Francois St-Cyr, Gosselin hit up the tune again in the third period.

An enraged Milbury proceeded to charge up to the organist, followed by a few Mariners players, and the coach had to be restrained by security as, reportedly, several punches were thrown. The game was delayed 15 minutes, and Milbury received a game misconduct for the in-game outburst against Gosselin.

“What if we did the same thing to a French Canadian when they come down to Maine?” asked Milbury. “It’s the same thing. It’s just totally unnecessary.” He received an additional fine of $250 from the AHL for his actions.

“It’s a show,” countered Gosselin. “We had 4,000 people here and the hockey players are professionals. It’s not a question of racism, it’s a question of entertainment. I’m just doing my job.”

The target of Tricolo and Gosselin’s ethnic-inspired mockery, Tsujiura, simply shrugged it off as just another incident in a series of them. “Like I’ve always said before, I’ve experienced this ever since I started playing here. It happens, and that’s unfortunate. I accept it, but I don’t think it should happen. There is certainly an element of racism, but I already have enough problems on the ice to be distracted by that.

“But if I ever ran into the organist in the streets, I would tell him face-to-face what I thought. Such an act shows a total lack of class, which is surprising coming from this organization who demonstrates class since their start in the NHL.”

The Canadiens director of operations, Claude Larose, defended the actions. “Racism through music? Tsujiura has been coming here to play for seven years now. If he wasn’t ok with it he would have come to tell us. We’re treated as ‘frogs’ everywhere we go in this league, especially in Maine and Rochester where they play ‘La Marseillaise’ to mock us. I would like the league to call me about this subject.”

The fans loved Tricolo, and the racist taunting of Tsujiura did little to assuage it. He was a hit. All the complaints against him served to just anger the Canadiens organization, which stood in unison with their mascot. “They complained about our attendance, but now that there are people here they are complaining about something else,” said a defiant Larose. “Are they trying to neuter Tricolo who represents for us an important public relations tool who helps to attract fans? Are they trying to throw us off because we are successful? We keep getting these complaint letter from the AHL, but never one that congratulates us for our success.”

Tricolo continued to wave the Japanese flag during games to rile up the crowd, and Gosselin continue to hint at playing mock Japanese music at every home game, regardless of opponent, to the delight of the audience that valued rebelling against the league’s demands to stop playing the tasteless music. Although the team allowed these antics to continue, scoffing at accusations of racism, newspapers themselves were quick to condemn the actions of their own team’s mascot and fans. “For the last eight games, Gosselin has played the tune almost continuously, sadly much to the delight of an enthusiastic and responsive crowd,” wrote the Sherbrooke Record.

In preparation of a return visit from the Mariners a month after the original incident, Larose mentioned that he told Tricolo to not provoke the situation and just go about his regular business. “It’s not like us to kick things off, and anyways I’m sure that our fans will take charge to remind Milbury that he acted like a fool on his last trip to Sherbrooke.”

The Record, 1988

The draw of the return game in Sherbrooke was huge: 5,153 fans flocked to the game to see a hockey game and hopefully another spectacle. Some fans were ready to participate in the racist taunting as well, sporting signs in bad taste like “Chow-mein-Maine” and “Milbury $250 = ? yen.” Seven Japanese flags were reported in the stands. The fans were ready for Tricolo and Gosselin to zero in on Tsujiura again, which of course they did. The Japanese jingle played in the third period, to the delight of the crowd. Milbury could just hang his head in disgust. The tasteless humour then turned towards Milbury.

If Tricolo and Gosselin had questionable sensitivity during the Tsujiura incident, they more than showed a total lack of common sense in December of 1989, when they coordinated a routine mimicking firing a machine gun at the referee, one week after the massacre at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, when 14 women were murdered.

Tricolo had various routines in his repertoire, from riding an ATV on the ice (from which he would frequently fall off of), to a smaller remote control version of the ATV, to a Batman disguise, Tricolo was loved by the crowds. He visited hospitals with the players, and was an active celebrity participant at various city events, but the mascot’s legacy will be marred forever for being on the wrong side of the evolving cultural sensitivity of the 1980s.

As the AHL Canadiens moved from Sherbrooke to Fredericton in 1990, so did Tricolo. But it wouldn’t be same person underneath the blue fur. Claude Bernier, who donned the costume in Sherbrooke, was replaced by a student from the University of New Brunswick for the 1990-91 season, according to the team’s release. As a result, and probably by design, Tricolo was much less confrontational with the opposing team’s players, simply a mascot to have in the background to interact with fans — as it was initially designed to be before things went too far.

Tricolo would slowly fade into the background, re-emerging again for the Fredericton Canadiens in February of 1995, but as he took centre ice he was described by the press like looking much older and dishevelled. The costume, and the character had run its course.

When the Fredericton Canadiens moved to Quebec City in 1999, the story of Tricolo ended. The Quebec Citadelles eventually unveiled their own mascot in 2001 by the name of Boucky, but that was to be short-lived.

To complete the AHL mascot lineage, after Boucky there were Bruiser and Buddy in Hamilton and St. John’s, respectively, before the Laval Rocket unveiled Cosmo to the world in 2018. As to the peculiar resemblance between Tricolo and Cosmo, there’s good reason to just leave that one alone and let Cosmo build his own legacy.