For nearly three decades, Cameron Hughes has made his living as a sports superfan — a major event T-shirt-hurler, arena-aisle dancer, crowd igniter and self-anointed King of Cheer.
He's worked more than 1,500 events, including two Olympic Games, five NBA Finals, two Stanley Cup Finals and the U.S. Open.
"They wanted me to add value to the fan experience," he said, adding sports at that level are so competitive, it's important to add levity and get the crowd excited.
But Hughes' last sporting event was March 12, 2020, and in the year since, with everything cancelled for months on end, he's had to find new ways of reaching people.
He started by bringing out all his jerseys — dozens of them — and creating a home studio.
He does consulting, crashes Zoom and town hall meetings, makes personalized videos, and he wrote a book.
"The energy you give is the energy you get," he said.
"We're all tired of it at the end of the day," he added. "We're tired of looking at our screens, and looking at these boxes of people without being to touch them — physically, to be able to hug them — but also to have that real moment."
Crowd energizing kicked off in the Townships
Hughes says he has always been known for being fearless.
In his second year at Bishop's University in Lennoxville, in the early 90s, he was known for wearing body paint, a cape, and a hollowed out watermelon on his head at football games.
His roommate at the time, who was the one to encourage Hughes' crowd-pleasing antics, later went on to play in the CFL and NFL, and Hughes has been cheering in the crowd ever since.
His professional superfandom officially started in 1994 at an Ottawa Senators hockey game, with thousands of fans in the stands, but not much cheering happening.
With eight minutes left in the game, Hughes got up to dance his heart out and caught the attention of the team.
"I had been in front of crowds before," he said. "I was the crazy guy at university wearing a watermelon. I had been a mascot but I had never done it without truly wearing a mask."
He said not only did he get up and put himself out there, he kept doing it.
"I haven't stopped dancing since," he said.
His energetic antics aren't limited to sports. Hughes also warms up the crowds at comedy galas at the Just for Laughs festival.
Collection of essays released in the fall
Hughes' book, a collection of essays about his life and career, came out in the fall.
"I'm just grateful that I got to have so many of these moments," he said. "I don't feel like I'm done yet."
The first-time author said reflecting on his career was both cathartic and fulfilling.
"It's intense," he said, to look back on his life and the moments he chose to follow his passion, and "be fearless."
"It just made sense when I connected the dots, looking back at being on a small field in the middle of the beautiful Eastern Townships, and this university and this community gave me a chance to thrive," he said.
Hughes said he wants young people to know how important it is to build on a solid foundation, to then be pleasantly surprised at where they end up.
"I'm the kid that didn't make his high school basketball team, and here I am at the NBA," he said.
But it's not all about the big events. Hughes said small town games, when a team member's mom or coach makes him a home-cooked meal on a Friday night, are just as important to him.
"It's been quite a ride," he said. "I can't believe someone pays me to have so much fun."
He said sports are about the experience and the energy of coming together, and he hopes when thousands of fans are back in the stands, they'll be looking to kick that energy into high gear.
Hughes said when he looks around his home studio and sees jerseys from both Victoria, B.C., and Cape Breton, N.S., he's inspired to plan a cross-Canada trip to bring joy to people.
"Everyone needs a bit of a spark," he said. "If I can just be that big, goofy guy who's not afraid to make fun of himself, who's going to dance a little crazier, maybe it'll make you laugh a little more."