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‘When everything is bad in the world, Gritty is good’: A Philadelphia love story

After 42 years without a mascot, the Philadelphia Flyers debuted Gritty in 2018. The team had no idea what would happen next. (Video: Allie Caren, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post, Photo: Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

PHILADELPHIA — What can we tell you about Gritty, in real life?

Well, okay. He’s a pretty tall guy. Moves faster than you’d think, too. His eyes rattle when he bops his head. His hands have this playful squeak, as does his belly button, which he will flash with a flip of his jersey. He wears hockey pants and a hockey helmet and his very best friend is a hockey man named Claude, who is the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers.

He is loved here in Philadelphia, and it is just the beginning.

Gritty, the Flyers' rookie mascot, is now set to appear at his first NHL all-star weekend and then follow that up with a trip to Capitol Hill, where, if recent history is any indication, he will … do something weird, probably? After making a deeply strange first impression and enduring a brief Internet backlash, Gritty has endeared himself to Flyers fans, both young and old, this season simply by being his own true self.

Go to a game in Philadelphia, see for yourself. At Wells Fargo Center earlier this month, a Flyers fan enthusiastically offered to show off the Gritty pics on her phone, then somewhat less enthusiastically admitted she has had more fun watching the mascot than the players this season. A kindergarten teacher raved about him. Her students loved Gritty, she said, right from the start. When discussing Gritty — who again, is the large mascot of a professional hockey team — a man in the concourse literally used the phrases “one of us” and “good for the city.” A woman showed up in Gritty cosplay. Like, really.

At this point, Gritty is a viral sensation on the Internet and a real celebrity in a city whose citizens have embraced him as their own. He is irreverent and wild. A little rough around the edges. Just super on-brand, a true [expletive] Philadelphian.

“He’s, like, the spirit of Philadelphia,” said Anna Ladd, who spoke while sporting a black Gritty hoodie. “Pure anarchy and chaos. When everything is bad in the world, Gritty is good. We have him.”

‘Went right to murder, apparently’

Gritty burst into this world in the fall, the longtime project of a franchise that had not had a mascot since a short-lived attempt in the ’70s. The big reveal happened in late September, before a crowd of about 600 children at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia. Reviews, initially, were mixed. Those eyes. That tummy! But then Gritty appeared on home ice, where he promptly took a tumble and showed no mercy in T-shirt warfare. Before long, a star was born.

Since that time, this googly eyed weirdo has been responsible for an unending crush of Gritty-related content, quickly becoming the Flyers' clear off-ice MVP. Also possibly their on-ice MVP. Hockey-wise, the mascot’s rookie year has been a bleak one in Philadelphia. The Flyers fired their coach in December. They suffered an eight-game losing streak in December and January. They enter the all-star break winners of three straight and four of their past five, but still, things could be going better.

Up close and orange: A Q&A with Gritty

From a business perspective, though, Gritty’s first few months have been an unlikely success story. He is the result of an unselfish and collaborative effort, and represents total commitment from an organization that took chances and leaned in. Gritty was, and continues to be, a real risk. In a league in which a team clapping together in circle is an actual topic of conversation, creating a charmingly off-kilter character who is sort of rude to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Twitter is some “Profiles in Courage” stuff.

“To me, Gritty is this monstrous creature who was born in really troubled times, makes its way onto the national stage by being nothing but its unapologetic self,” said Philadelphia city councilwoman Helen Gym, who introduced a municipal resolution to welcome Gritty that referenced a number of (very accurate) descriptors, including “orange hellion” and “fuzzy eldritch horror.” “There is nothing more Philadelphia than being unapologetically yourself.”

Gritty’s origin story opens at the 2016 NHL All-Star Game in Nashville, which was attended by a bunch of Flyers higher-ups and also a boy named Gavyn, the young son of the team’s chief operating officer, Shawn Tilger. Gavyn dragged his dad over to the mascot game at the event, said the elder Tilger, and was just captivated. Gavyn asked why the Flyers didn’t have a mascot.

“And we all looked at each other and knew that, okay, we’re obviously missing something,” Tilger said, “and it’s time.”

It took a while, but that realization triggered the start of a months-long process of serious deliberations about various Gritty-related details. There were discussions about Gritty’s eyes, his fur, his name. About whether he would have teeth, and whether he would wear pants.

The team consulted with David Raymond, original best friend of the Philadelphia Phanatic and a king in this mascot world, and worked with several artists, including Brian Allen, who sketched out a design of the creature that evolved into the Gritty you see today. They created a rich backstory. And they braced themselves.

“There were a lot of days where I was like, ‘I don’t know how this is going to go,’” said Joe Heller, vice president of marketing and communications for the Flyers, whose children, Scott and Juliette, served as a sounding board throughout the process.

The Flyers, who figured it could be a polarizing move, gave their fans about two weeks to two months to accept the mascot, Heller said. Things happened much faster. But Heller remembers those early haters: In an inspiring display of pettiness, he took pics of their tweets.

“Some of my favorite tweets that I screenshot were, ‘every last person in that marketing department needs to be fired’, and, ‘what were they thinking,’ or, ‘apparently you don’t need a brain to work there — look what they rolled out,’” he said. “We look back at those and laugh.”

A possible turning point, Raymond said, was the aforementioned exchange with the Penguins, in which Gritty was casually disrespected online, and responded by cautioning Pittsburgh’s mascot: “Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird.”

“Went right to murder, apparently,” Raymond said. “And then [for Flyers fans], that’s it: Don’t mess with our guy. He might be ugly, but he’s our ugly. … That’s what Philadelphia is all about. It’s us. We may not be pretty; we may not smell good; we may not look good. But guess what? We’re going to kick your ass.”

These days, Gritty life management is no small task. Two people handle Gritty’s social media presence. And when Gritty had a “The Tonight Show” appearance, the Flyers chartered a helicopter so he could make it back for a game that night. Then he had a police escort to Wells Fargo Center.

Say a quiet prayer, too, for Gritty’s security team, which has to keep pace with our dude on game nights, as they did when the Flyers faced the Dallas Stars earlier this month. Gritty spent that pregame launching himself over railings in the stands and tackling a guy in the concourse, for some reason?

(He probably had it coming.)

“I think he is unique to Philly,” Heller said. “I think Philly just gets him.”

‘This guy’s absolute chaos'

Jim Lardani, who was raised here, certainly does. He grew up going to hockey games, where he would sit in the cheap seats, bang on the air vents and drop popcorn through rolled-up posters until his dad intervened.

Lardani is operator of a bar not far from the Divine Lorraine Hotel in Philadelphia. On hockey nights, the Flyers game is on a TV near the bar. This city can feel like such a small community, Lardani says. He thinks people here do have a sense of humor, and can laugh about themselves. Philadelphia is tough. Philadelphians look out for each other.

Lardani remembers Gritty’s big reveal, and his first game, in which Gritty fell on the ice, and “shot some guy in the ass” with a T-shirt cannon.

“It’s just like, this guy’s absolute chaos; he’s amazing,” said Lardani, who now has a tattoo of Gritty’s wild face paired with the words “chaos reigns.” “This is fantastic. This is what I want in a mascot.”

Gym, the local councilwoman, was out of town for the mascot’s debut. It was an intense time for Gym, personally and professionally. Gritty arrived in the midst of that, she said, and united her office.

“It was shocking. It was hilarious. It was completely bizarre,” she said. “And it totally captivated my entire team.”

Gym’s staff did a reading of her municipal resolution before it was introduced, and she has heard stories of others doing the same, too.

“Sometimes the most unexpected things can bring people together,” she said. “We all need that right now.”

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