Las Vegas Sun

November 19, 2018

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There’s a man behind the mascot

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Steve Marcus

Each game, Dave Romleski brings The Duke, the Las Vegas Wranglers’ mascot, to life, shimmying, shaking, climbing on seats and delighting kids with gags and physical humor. In his final games, The Duke will appear in a leisure suit.

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  • Dave Romleski, Wranglers' mascot "The Duke," on fans' reactions.

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  • Romleski on his upcoming last day as "The Duke."

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  • Wranglers general manager Billy Johnson on Dave Romleski retiring.
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Dave Romleski removes his knee brace after performing in a $12,500 bull suit as The Duke, during a game last year. He says he loses about 10 pounds a game and sweats through a dozen T-shirts.

Dave Romleski

  • Age: 41
  • Hometown: Venice, Calif.
  • Height: 5 feet 10 inches
  • Weight: 225 pounds
  • Shoe size: 10 1/2
  • Waist: 38 inches
  • Family: Wife Stacy, daughters Amanda and Miranda, sons Travis and fraternal twins Bryce and Kaden
  • Favorite foods: Beef, sushi
  • Personal: Played linebacker in football at Los Angeles Lutheran High ... earned a Bronze Star in the Army in Operation Desert Storm ... performed as King Midas, a lion, for the Colorado Gold Kings of the old West Coast Hockey League.

The Duke

  • Age: 5
  • Hometown: Philadelphia
  • Height: 6 feet 8 inches
  • Height (with the yellow alfalfa): 7 feet 3 inches
  • Weight: 27 pounds
  • Shoe size: 17 3/4 inches
  • Waist: 98 inches
  • Family: Cousin Philly Phanatic, who trained him in the art of nonverbal communication for two days when he got the Wranglers job
  • Favorite foods: Chicken, popcorn, turkey jerky
  • Personal: He’s a regular at other functions, such as races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, in the Las Vegas area, and he once played for five hours, when it was 117 degrees, before 10,000 people at the Fourth of July festivities at Nellis Air Force Base ... attended three ECHL All-Star games as the league’s favorite mascot.

The green blur hit the brakes in an instant. Someone had moved into his path. He heard his left knee pop. He flipped, landing on his ample posterior inside the chilly Orleans Arena.

A little squirt, emulating Sugar Ray Leonard, darted over and started bopping his big yellow nose.

He wasn’t a Las Vegas Wranglers star, like Peter Ferraro or Adam Cracknell. He was someone, or something, more important to the ECHL hockey club.

At this level of minor league hockey, player movement is constant. So a lively green mascot who specializes in perpetual motion can become a kid magnet and a fan favorite, the face of a five-year-old franchise.

It was The Duke’s green furry face that stared up at the rafters, without moving, at the bottom of Section 118 during the first round of the playoffs last year.

Dave Romleski, the 41-year-old man inside the cartoonish bull costume, had blown out his knee.

“The kid was teeing off on my nose, using it as a speed bag,” he said inside his sparsely furnished locker room after a recent game. “But he had no idea. There are a lot of kids who punch you.”

Perpetual motion

They’d better get their good-natured jabs in soon, because Romleski’s days as The Duke are numbered.

Two home games remain in the regular season, then the playoffs. When the postseason ends, Romleski will join his wife, Stacy, a civilian who accepted a lucrative transfer with the Air Force, and four of their five children in Germany.

Some unfortunate soul will follow him and try to match the green fur ball’s character, life and soul.

Wranglers President Billy Johnson, who 20 years ago cawed around as “Billy Bird” for the St. Louis Cardinals’ Triple-A team in Louisville, Ky., will have a tough time replacing Romleski.

“He’s very, very good,” Johnson said. “He suits the suit perfectly.”

Before the third-largest crowd in Wranglers history Friday night, Romleski high-fived his way around 7,427 fans.

He hopped up and down to “Cotton Eye Joe,” executed “YMCA” to perfection, cheered on two females in a buffalo wing-eating contest and smacked the rink glass with both hands.

An Alaska player was getting rough with a Wrangler, so The Duke “retaliated.” The crowd roared.

He picked his snout with a Wranglers’ red foam No. 1 finger, then scratched that big green derriere. Everyone around him laughed.

A 5-year-old boy was tickled mercilessly. Then Duke hid the kid under his black and white jersey and raised his palms high. Where’d he go?

The kid ran back to his parents laughing hysterically.

“You can replace spoken comedy, or movie styles, but you can’t replace a physical style of comedy,” Johnson said. “And he has a very physically distinct way of carrying the costume and character.”

In Romleski’s garage, two Duke costumes, costing the Wranglers $12,500 each, rest on custom wooden hangers.

He washes them in the tub up in the master bathroom. Once, Stacy Romleski, beat from her day, zipped back downstairs.

“Can you get him out of the bathtub?” she said. “I want to take a shower.”

The 5-foot-10, 225-pound Romleski often catches himself mimicking The Duke’s movements at home. He goes 6-8 in the suit, 7-3 if you include the yellow alfalfa, with fluorescent tips, on his green noggin.

He changes into a dry T-shirt about a dozen times a game because he never wanted to be known as a stinky mascot. He loses about 10 pounds a game, which he replaces by constantly drinking Gatorade diluted with water.

He sees through a discreet green screen in The Duke’s neck.

In a freak accident two months ago, a puck from the game zoomed into that narrow opening and hit his left eye, leaving him with a shiner for two weeks.

He must walk around with his chin to his neck so the creature looks normal, with its eyes straight ahead. Miranda, his 14-year-old daughter, coaches him.

Regular visits to the chiropractor, for traction, help his neck.

When he removes The Duke’s noggin, his face is red and his hair is wet.

Six squares are indented in his forehead from pads inside the head. Those aren’t visible the next day, but Romleski can feel them if he runs his fingers across his head.

Bryce, one of his 6-year-old twin boys, ran in for a hug wearing a dark knit cap featuring The Duke on the front.

“I looked up a lot tonight,” Romleski said as he winced and rubbed his neck.

Funny, taken seriously

When he and Stacy moved from Denver to Las Vegas so she could work at Nellis Air Force Base, he landed a gig at a Lowe’s home-improvement store. He’s a delivery and stock manager.

These days Romleski trains other mascots, telling them to jog or run, not walk. Use the seats, he says, not the stairs. He breaks four or five plastic seat backs a season.

“It’s energy and movement,” he said. “Move quickly. Stop quickly. Move your head a lot. It’s animation. It makes it very funny. It’s larger than life. It’s fabulous.”

Two years ago, he took a dance class. Right away, someone asked whether it was a different person inside the costume because he moved so much more smoothly to “Love Train” by the O’Jays.

Romleski won’t reveal what he earns as The Duke, but he said he gets about double the industry average.

On game days, he finishes an eight-hour shift at Lowe’s by midafternoon and gets to the arena by 3 p.m. to lay out a suit, the 17 3/4-inch red shoes that ran $1,400 and props he’ll need that night.

He meets with Michael DeLay, the team’s vice president of corporate services and game production, for a few minutes to arrange that night’s skits.

Assistant Karla Hermann, with her black backpack of goodies, is always near with T-shirts or beads to give out.

Various commercials air on the big screens and plasmas inside the arena during games. Twenty-two of the routines can be seen on YouTube. Yes, he watches them.

“It’s really hard to believe I’m in that costume,” Romleski said. “Duke’s been like a part of the family. Everyone talks about him like he’s a person. We’ll miss Duke.”

The Duke’s farewell

In remaining home games, Romleski will unveil a white leisure suit and dance, a la John Travolta, to the Bee Gees.

Rose Wilson, The Duke’s custom tailor, has turned Romleski into a Blues Brother and Elvis, and will transform him into “Tony Manero” from “Saturday Night Fever.”

Ideally, nobody will touch The Duke’s alfalfa.

“He always comes up with interesting things,” Wilson said. “I can’t see how he jumps around in that thing for two hours.”

After games, Romleski usually takes The Duke’s head off as he ambles through a tunnel to his tiny locker room.

When he walks off the ice the final time, he’ll think about those visits to abused and neglected children at Child Haven or to small cancer patients in bungalows at Sunrise Children’s Hospital.

That won’t be sweat streaming down from his eyes.

“I’ll be glad I’m wearing the head,” Romleski said. “No one will be able to see my face.”

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