From Mascot to Meme to Megastar: How Gritty Took Over the World

Gritty is now a household name, a bona fide celebrity. But the feisty, furry Philadelphia Flyers mascot might not have invaded our lives quite as quickly without his memorable — and painful — debut on Sept. 24, 2018. Here’s an oral history of how the new king of Philly ascended to the mascot throne and went from getting roasted to being the toast of the sports world.

Gritty’s story doesn’t begin where you might think. In February 2018, Philadelphia celebrated the biggest moment in its sports history. After winning the Super Bowl, the Eagles were welcomed home by crowds of fans … and mascots.

Joe Heller, Flyers VP for brand strategy and creative content: I remember watching the Eagles’ bus come back with the team on it. The people leading the parade were the Phillie Phanatic, the Eagles’ Swoop and the 76ers’ Franklin. And I thought, “Of all the things that we can’t be part of … We have nobody to align with those three mascots.”good

Shawn Tilger, former Flyers chief operating officer: We looked at each other and said, “OK, it’s time to give this thing a shot.”

Heller: The Sixers, Eagles and Phillies were so active with their mascots. We were missing 250 events a year where the Flyers were not represented.

The Flyers knew they needed a mascot. Now they needed a design.

Heller: Dave Raymond, the original Phanatic, was right here in our backyard. So my first call was to Dave. He met with us and said, “You guys can do this.” But he warned us that people were not going to like this thing out of the gate. They were not going to like that a team that has been around for 52 years was suddenly shoving a mascot down their throats. This is a serious hockey town, with a team that’s serious about winning.

The Flyers eventually landed on a design from Brian Allen of FlyLand Designs, but not before they agonized over every detail.

Allen: The only guidance the Flyers gave us was that they were pretty sure they wanted the mascot to be a monster — somebody you’d want to high-five but not hug.

Tilger: There were a lot of options for us to pick from. Some were really safe, like an animal — something you could easily identify. We wanted something that, when you looked at it, you were like, “What is this thing?” The Phanatic is probably the greatest mascot of all time. But you can’t tell what he is.

Heller: We looked at maybe 125 different designs. We had squirrels on the table and bats and deer. One of the ones with the most potential was this character called “Monster D.” He had angel wings, a big belly. So we’re like, “There’s enough here we can play with.” We took the wings off. His mouth changed 13 different times.

Tilger: We argued about whether he should have eyebrows or no eyebrows, beard or no beard, googly eyes or no googly eyes, belly button or no belly button.

Heller: At one time we were gonna have smoke come out of his ears. We finally were like, “This is the guy.”

And who better to name that guy than former Flyers forward and Senior Advisor Paul Holmgren?

Holmgren: We were just kinda shooting the breeze, kickin’ ideas, spitballin’. But I said, “We should just call him Gritty.” It’s what the Flyers are known for — being a gritty team. That’s kind of how I view this city. It’s a fast-paced, hardworking, blue-collar community.

Tilger: And then [Holmgren] made a joke saying that Gritty’s hands should be made of sandpaper.

Next, Gritty went from paper to plush. But the Flyers still had their doubts.

Heller: His hair wasn’t great. His beard was kind of bizarre. And you just don’t know about him. That was our biggest fear, that this mascot wouldn’t be adopted.

After Gritty burst onto the scene and endured a brief Internet backlash, he endeared himself to Philadelphians by being his own true self. Tom Mihalek/AP Photo

Tilger: We knew it was going to be very polarizing at first. We had done surveys and asked the fans [if they wanted a mascot]. Our fans were like, “Absolutely not. We’re purists. We don’t want a mascot. We don’t need a mascot.”

That fear was looming for a reason. The Flyers already had a mascot that hadn’t been adopted — back in 1976, for one season, when Holmgren was a rookie with the team.

Tilger: They tried it once before and it was a disaster.

Holmgren: I read somewhere that his name was Slapshot. I don’t remember anything about it.

Heller: I saw one black-and-white photo of [Slapshot]. He wore a pilot’s hat. My guess is that he wasn’t Philly enough. So we had to play our cards right this time. We had to come up with something that the fans would embrace.

The Flyers won’t reveal who inhabits the Gritty costume, but he came highly recommended by Dave Raymond, the original Phanatic.

Tilger: We found the craziest guy we could. After we met him, we knew he was the right person for the job.

Heller: So about a week before Gritty is to be seen in public, we bring the guy in to try on the costume. Gritty wasn’t supposed to be wearing hockey pants; he just had this big jersey on. But the performer’s a big guy — taller than we expected — and he’s showing a lot of leg. So we added the hockey pants at the last minute. There are still some photos of Gritty out there where he has no pants.

The Flyers introduced Gritty at a private team media event on Sept. 13, 2018, and then officially set him loose on Sept. 24.

Tilger: We did a launch [with Gritty] at a museum with a bunch of kids from the Philadelphia school district. It was well received. The kids just loved him.

Heller: Kids are screaming with him, and no kids are running away from him. And we’re like, “Awesome!” We had a preseason game that night. Gritty was gonna go to the game and we were gonna keep rolling. And so we put out the tweet of him.

Heller: And then — boom — the tweets start coming in.

Tilger: We got blistered. We didn’t realize that if you put googly eyes on a mascot and someone takes a still photo, it turns into crazy eyes.

Heller: Everybody is just like, “He’s horrifying!” “He’s the worst nightmare!” “Fire the marketing department!” “What were they ever thinking?”

Tilger: The first 24 hours, we all thought we were going to lose our jobs.

Christine Mina, Flyers senior manager, digital media: Everyone in our department kind of had a moment of, “Oh no. What did we do? Was this a bad idea?”

Just 60 minutes into his existence, the world declared Gritty a failure.

Heller: It was all bad. And then Pittsburgh chimes in. The Penguins fire off a tweet laughing at us. That opens the door for us to fire one back.

It took just nine minutes for Gritty to respond. And Flyers fans took notice.

Mina: That’s when his first bit of real personality came out. It gave Philadelphians a chance to be like, “OK, this guy’s defending us. Now we’re going to defend him.”

Tilger: They picked on one of our own, so our fans got behind him. And then the things that made Gritty controversial made him popular.

Holmgren: It was like, “Wait a minute … you can’t abuse him. He’s ours.”

Gritty had earned his new family’s respect. Seven hours later, he made his debut on home ice.

Lou Nolan, Flyers PA announcer since the 1972-73 season: For the first game, I wasn’t sure where or when he would be coming out. Suddenly there’s what looks like a 7-foot-5 orange character walking out onto the ice. I don’t think fans knew what to do at first.

Heller: The doors open up for his first walk on the ice, and Gritty bites it.

James van Riemsdyk, Flyers left winger: We’re all kind of laughing to each other, wondering, “What the hell’s going on out here?”

Nolan: I don’t think he was trying to fall. There was laughter, but he immediately came up with the snow angel, and people loved that.

Holmgren: My first thought was, “Gritty needs to get in shape.” Hockey’s about fitness, and you got to be in good shape to play the game.

Gritty, through a mascot interpreter: All I remember is falling on the ice. Ice is super hard. Hit my noggin pretty bad. Don’t remember much after that. I didn’t quite have my ice legs yet. First days are tough — Claude [Giroux, Philly’s team captain and close Gritty confidant] told me so.

Yes, Gritty fell. But more important, he got back up.

Lauren Capone, Flyers marketing and communications coordinator: By later in that game, there were people running out of their seats to get photos with Gritty.

Lauren Robins, former Flyers digital media coordinator: I remember thinking, “He is breaking the internet.” So the Kim Kardashian Paper Magazine cover [which features the reality star balancing a martini glass on her derriere] popped into my head. And I thought, “I think I can photoshop him into that position.”

Mina: I was like, “OK, you need to photoshop this right now. I’ll take care of everything else.” So we sat in the press box, and she worked on that tweet.

Robins: It took me the whole game to do it. And then I came up with a simple caption, “Goodnight, internet.”

Mina: He had over 50,000 followers that night, and he reached 100K within three days of us launching.

Robins: It was crazy. I’ve never seen something go viral like that.

Gritty: I don’t really like to concern myself with the people who are tweeting about me; it’s more about those who aren’t tweeting about me. @KimKardashian — I’ll wait … forever. As for the viral part, I’ve been checked, and I’m clean.

Gritty made his mark in just 24 hours. And ever since, he’s been unstoppable.

Heller: People went from completely hating on him when he first made his debut to loving him by the end of the day, and from laughing at him to laughing with him. “Good Morning America” called and said they wanted to meet Gritty. And so they set up here at 4 o’clock the next morning. Two days later, he was on the Jimmy Fallon show.

Thanks to his in-arena stunts and outsized celebrity, the googly-eyed daredevil has become the Flyers’ clear off-ice MVP. Gavin Baker/Icon Sportswire

Tilger: There are people who had no interest in hockey who love this concept of Gritty and who he is. It has transcended just what happens on the ice. People can’t name players, but they can name Gritty.

Capone: He’s like the little kid inside of everybody who wants to push the boundaries. Even when he’s out in public or on the concourse at a game, he has no problem bumping a mom with a stroller aside and taking the stroller for a joyride around the concourse.

Tilger: Mascots are supposed to be fun, and everyone is having fun with this. Gritty has been great for our organization and for the sport. Commissioner [Gary] Bettman called me. I was like, “Oh boy. What’s he gonna say?” And he just said, “Hey, this is great!”

Tilger: I’ll be on the concourse before games and see these parents with their kid dragging them around looking for Gritty. They’re here from Canada, California. It’s unbelievable how many people have made special trips to games to see Gritty.

Gritty took the internet by storm when he was introduced as the Flyers mascot. But as Katie Nolan points out, other NHL mascots soured on the newcomer.

Everyone loved him. Well, not everyone. Even Gritty has his haters.

Heller: Gritty doesn’t really have too many friends when it comes to the NHL mascot landscape. There’s sort of a mascot rivalry going on there. And when Gritty appeared on the cover of The Hockey News, it didn’t help. But the players voted him the best mascot in the league. It’s the mascots who are fueling a lot of it. Our rivals — the New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Penguins, Washington Capitals — are always going to hate us, but now they have some fans out there who say, “Hey, I’m a Caps fan … but I kinda like Gritty.” But here in Philly, the brotherhood between the four mascots has been great. They liked each other right out of the gate.

Thanks to his viral antics and in-game stunts — which included zip lining into Lincoln Financial Field from the roof, lit up like a Christmas tree, to kick off the Stadium Series game in February against the Penguins and then streaking through the Linc, revealing his jersey-less body — Gritty became a pop culture icon … and a popular tattoo subject.

Heller: Gritty has a dad-bod thing going on. That’s part of his appeal.

Steve Fawley, tattoo artist, Havertown Electric Tattoo: Gritty was announced as the mascot on a Monday, and by that night, a friend who’s also a Flyers fan messaged me about getting a tattoo of him. I shook my head and said, “All right. I can do that. That could be fun.” My friend couldn’t come in until Friday, so I thought someone else might beat me to it, but no one did. I did the tattoo on him, we both posted it on Instagram, and by Saturday it was getting reposted all over the place.

Gritty has found his way into Flyers fans’ hearts — and onto their skin too. Courtesy Steve Fawley

Mike Harrison, Flyers fan who got a Gritty tattoo: Gritty is perfect. He’s part of the team. The tattoo is permanent, but it’s like if you bought Giroux’s jersey and then he got traded. Flyers fans are just loyal, I guess. Through thick or thin. Gritty is my dude — and he’ll always be my dude.

Fawley: I’ve been tattooing for 10 years, and Gritty has been the most popular tattoo I have done, period — sports-related or otherwise.

Robins: We nominated Gritty to be Time’s Person of the Year. I wanted to photoshop him onto the Time cover, and then it hit me: If we switch the letters around in TIME, it spells “IT ME.” So I rearranged the words to spell out IT ME instead of TIME. And that blew up too.

Time didn’t select Gritty as Person of the Year. But he clearly made his mark in Philly — and beyond.

Fawley: I’d say Gritty is one of the MVPs of the town — even though he doesn’t play.

Tilger: Gritty is someone who’s identified by one name now. Like Prince. Or Madonna.

Heller: This is so above and beyond anything we expected when we were sweating bullets back in July of 2018, thinking about whether we should have a squirrel, a bull or a monster as our mascot. I’m glad we didn’t pick the bull.

Gritty: It all comes down to being a quadruple threat: good looks — 360-degree vision provides optimal peripheral vision angles — advanced street magic, not that fake Criss Angel stuff, impeccable BMI (brilliant mascot intuition) and a heart that beats only for the Philadelphia Flyers. They set me free, and now I can’t be tamed.

Additional reporting by Scott Cikowski and Anna Katherine Clemmons.

Author: Barry Melrose

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