By Christine Troyke
Gwinnett Daily Post
DULUTH, Ga. – He was once cheered wildly, adored by thousands of Gladiator fans nightly at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
He is now heartily booed by those same fans – whether they know it or not.
Not so long ago Rob Montepare wore the fuzzy brown costume of the Gladiators’ mascot, Maximus the lion. A former intern with Gwinnett, he now hits the ice wearing the black and white stripes of an ECHL linesman.
For several seasons, Montepare was the first person to skate onto the ice before a game at the Gwinnett Arena. Spotlighted and wielding a sword or a hockey stick, it was his job to amp up the fans and get them on their feet for player introductions.
Now Montepare riles the fans for a different reason and, like all officials, he’s always in the spotlight.
A hometown product – Montepare and his family moved to Gwinnett from New York 10 years ago and he graduated from Collins Hill High School – there was mixed reaction when he worked his first ECHL game here just a couple of months ago.
“I got booed and cheered,” said Montepare, who only works part-time for the ECHL while getting a degree in marketing from Georgia State University. “And I laugh at it all – because it’s fun. I know what my job is here. I’d boo the referees too as a joke. But I tell everybody it’s just a different locker room I get dressed in.
“I’m the same person. I know where I stand and I don’t let it get to my head or anything like that.”
The cardinal rule of mascots – never lose your head – holds true of his new job.
Montepare got into officiating young, almost as soon as his family came to Gwinnett right before the 1996 Olympic Games.
“Ten years later, now at 20, I’m still involved with it,” Montepare said. “I stopped playing when I moved down, pretty much, and focused on officiating.
“My family was always very much a supporter of me playing hockey. It was a good release for me. But when I moved down here, it’s a totally different ballgame.”
A decade ago, the youth leagues around Atlanta were not nearly so well developed as they are now.
“To spend all the money to go play travel hockey, it just wasn’t feasible,” Montepare said. “Because we knew what real competitive hockey was (in New York). To spend all that money, I could just play house league and play for the high school league and have fun with it, enjoy it.
“Then I realized that there was opportunity in the officiating, so I really focused on that.”
Not to the exclusion of school, however. Montepare began working for the Gladiators because of a project he was doing at Collins Hill four years ago.
A junior in high school, Montepare was doing some research on hockey operations and contacted general manager Steve Chapman.
“Maybe when I hang it up with officiating, or I’m told I can’t do it anymore, I want to get into hockey operations on the business side,” Montepare said. “So when I got done with the project, he told me to come talk to him a couple of months down the road and I did.”
He was hired as an intern by Jim Hall, the director of community relations. Montepare dressed up as Maximus the mascot off and on during his first season.
“But toward the end of the season and the beginning of the next season, I was doing it all the time, all the appearances and stuff,” he said.
Last year, Montepare stepped down to pursue officiating at the pro level. He’s been working for the Southern Professional Hockey League for the past three seasons.
“I’m not yet fulltime with the ECHL because this is my first year and I still have school to focus on,” Montepare said. “My parents would break my legs (if I didn’t get my degree).”
His schedule – he’s just got class twice a week right now – allowed Montepare to return as Maximus at the beginning of this season. But then he was hired by the ECHL as a linesman.
“When I signed my contract before Thanksgiving, it was pretty much like the weekend before I was doing a community appearance with (Scott) Mifsud at a RaceTrac and then the next night, I’m out on the ice with them.”
So he’s again given up the adulation of being a cuddly, well-loved lion for the reviled stripes of a zebra.
“In one sense, it’s good for me to know who the guys are because I can have some communication with them on the ice,” Montepare said. “But I think I’m held to a higher standard here when I work – which is good. It makes me work harder. It’s not to say I don’t take this seriously everywhere, but this is my home rink.
“What ices the cake is my parents come to pretty much every game. Because my mom is the one that got up at like 5 o’clock in the morning to take me to the rink to do this when I was younger. So it’s nice to see them there.”