The new Flyers mascot had just destroyed the set of the “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Within seconds of being unleashed, he headed straight for Questlove’s drum set and started tossing his sticks across the room. As Fallon and Ricky Gervais attempted to dance to Boyz II Men, the bizarre, orange, bearded, googly eyed creature cut in and started an all-out brawl with the two comedians.
Later, as he left 30 Rock in full costume and headed to his chartered helicopter — yes, a mascot for a hockey team had his own helicopter waiting for him — the all-seeing eyes of TMZ had caught wind of his location. They chased him down the street, screaming his name:
Within three days of his creation, Gritty had become a sensation. But where did he come from? And what the hell is he?
Before he was hockey’s most talked about personality since Wayne Gretzky, he was an idea that started in the Flyers’ marketing department. At the 2016 All-Star weekend festivities, the Flyers were one of two teams in the NHL — along with the Rangers — who didn’t have an official mascot. Every year, the weekend features the NHL Mascot Showdown, which pits each team’s mascot against each other in a friendly competition.
As one of the three teams that was unable to participate (Al the Octopus, the Red Wings’ mascot, is not costumed), the Flyers felt it was time to develop a mascot that could go toe-to-toe with their rivals’. But in regards to what he would look like, the answer wasn’t obvious. The Flyers were uninterested in exploring their flying theme. Nor did they want to channel their “Broad Street Bullies” nickname. They wanted to do something wildly different.
“We wanted to be all-in with this mascot,” said Sarah Schwab, 31, the Flyers’ director of marketing and communications. “We wanted to make a statement.”
And make a statement they did. After commissioning more than 100 different artists and reviewing countless sketches, they landed on the prototype that became Gritty. Created by Pennsylvania artist Brian Allen, Gritty was concocted as an “amorphous monster creature,” according to Schwab.
“We had a safe version that was light and friendly and the typical kid-friendly mascot — not to say that Gritty isn’t kid-friendly, because he is — but we wanted something that was going to stand out from the crowd,” said Joe Heller, 35, the Flyers’ VP of marketing and communications.
“We want fans to high-five him. We don’t really want fans to hug him. His name is Gritty for a reason.”
The Flyers rolled him out Sept. 24, revealing him in a menacing photograph set against a pitch-black background. They also tweeted a now-viral 30-second video that saw Gritty skating out in front of flashing neon lights, shaking his belly and rolling his googly eyes over a jarringly intense electronic song.
The internet was frightened. Memes ensued. John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and “Good Morning America” all took notice. CBS Sports called Gritty “pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.”
“None of us really thought that his look would be so much the focal point of the backlash,” Heller said. “We thought it would be, ‘We don’t need a mascot.’ Looking back, the black backdrop that he took the photo in front of, that probably wasn’t the greatest choice.”
“That was probably some of the nightmare fuel,” Schwab added.
But it quickly became apparent that he was more than that creepy photo. He had a personality that few mascots in the history of sports could match. Gritty’s personality exploded onto the worldwide stage on a whirlwind first day.
The antics started in his first hour of existence. In response to Gritty’s photo, the rival Pittsburgh Penguins lobbed up a “softball,” as Heller put it.
“Lol ok,” the Penguins wrote in response to his photo. Gritty fired back.
“Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird.” The post was retweeted over 4,600 times.
That same day, Gritty made his debut on home ice before the Flyers’ preseason game against the Boston Bruins. It did not go well.
“The first 50 feet on the ice, and he bit it,” Heller said. “I didn’t think it was scripted because it looked like he had a hard landing. Sure enough, it wasn’t. He just fell. After, he said, ‘Who knew ice was slippery?’”
Between the launch, the Penguins’ clapback and the tumble on the ice, Gritty had made more headlines in 12 hours than most mascots make in their entire existence. But he saved his best moment of the day for last. As the Flyers’ staff sat down for their press meal that night, digital media coordinator Lauren Robins, who runs Gritty’s Twitter account, had an idea.
“I was thinking to myself, he’s about to break Twitter, Twitter is going to break and it’s going to be all our fault,” Robins said. “Then I was like, oh my goodness. Kim Kardashian. Break the internet.”
The 25-year-old Robins, described by Schwab as “Gritty’s brain unleashed on the internet,” whipped up a Photoshop of Gritty’s face onto Kim Kardashian’s infamous nude Paper Magazine cover shoot.
Paired with the simple caption, “Goodnight, internet,” Robins tweeted out the photo. The image exploded overnight. As it did, Gritty completed his transformation from frightening orange oddity to full-on folk hero.
“The Kim Kardashian tweet was the turning point,” Schwab said.
By the next day, everyone knew who Gritty was. Fallon’s staff at the “Tonight Show” invited him to be on the show that Thursday, three days after he was born. The only problem? The Flyers had a preseason game the same night, and missing it was out of the question.
“Gritty is first and foremost for Flyers fans and the city of Philadelphia,” Schwab said. “There’s no way he can miss his own game because he’s gotten too big for his britches and gone out to New York.
“I walked into our COO’s office and said, ‘We’re not going to be able to get Gritty back to Philadelphia in time for the game.’ He asked if I had a solution. I said, ‘I do, but you might not like it.’”
The solution was to charter a helicopter, and the Flyers approved. Gritty escaped the TMZ reporters to a helipad in the city, where he flew from New York to Philadelphia. He got a police escort to the arena and ended up arriving early.
In the months since, the legend of Gritty has only continued to grow. Much of this can be attributed to Robins, who has turned him into the most followed mascot on Twitter. When WWE star Elias ripped the city of Philadelphia and called Gritty a “fat, ugly, googly-eyed slob,” Robins tweeted a photo of Gritty body-slamming Elias, with the caption, “Heard I got called out last night by some guy with a ponytail named Jeff.”
Gritty’s most popular tweet came two weeks ago, ahead of Time Magazine announcing its annual “Person of the Year.”
“I really wanted to Photoshop Gritty onto the cover of Time and be really forward about it, to say he should be Time’s Person of the Year,” Robins said. “Then it hit me like a train — if we switch the I and T in Time, it spells ‘It Me.’ ” (“It Me” was the caption the Flyers tweeted out with Gritty’s first official photo.) The image has been retweeted more than 21,000 times.
Gritty has even transcended the world of sports to other corners of the internet. When President Trump visited Philadelphia in October, a protester raised a banner saying, “GRITTY SAY G.T.F.O. OF PHILLY.” The image went viral, and now Antifa Gritty is all over the memesphere.
The Flyers, however, have no interest in conflating Gritty with politics.
“Gritty doesn’t know his right from his left,” Schwab says.
On Nov. 30, Gritty showed up at the Rutgers-Michigan State basketball game in New Jersey. Why an NHL mascot would be at a Big Ten college basketball game is a question in and of itself. But at halftime, there he was, fully costumed, lumbering out onto the floor with his big belly bobbing up and down.
Someone gave him a basketball at half court. He took a shot. He drained it. Because of course he did.
“So much of what happened with Gritty is completely organic,” Heller said. “There really is no script at this point.”
We know Gritty looks like a cross between the Dodgers’ Justin Turner and a misshapen carrot. We know he’s a wide-reaching internet force. We know there’s nothing he can’t do.
But the question still remains: What the hell is Gritty?
“He’s a Gritty,” Schwab says.
And that’s enough.