Philadelphia Flyers executive Paul Holmgren, a former hard-nosed player, once joked that the franchise had such a history of gritty players that the team should have a mascot named Gritty with “sandpaper hands.”
“That name kind of stuck,” said Joe Heller, the Flyers’ vice president of marketing. “When we got something on paper, coupled it with the name, it all started to take shape from there.”
What the Flyers ended up with is the most talked-about character in the NHL this season.
Many people are buzzing about Canucks rookie Elias Pettersson, but Gritty’s notoriety has extended beyond the bounds of the hockey world.
The googly-eyed, orange and fuzzy mascot debuted on Sept. 24. He has been on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and was the subject of a skit on “Conan.” Gritty also was mentioned on “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” and “Saturday Night Live.”
Homemade Gritty costumes, for children, adults and dogs, were hot in and around Philadelphia on Halloween. Gritty-carved pumpkins were also in style.
“It hasn’t died down,” said Sarah Schwab, the Flyers’ director of marketing. “I remember in the first couple of days after we unveiled him, it blew up. It was an onslaught. And it really hasn’t slowed.”
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Gritty videos abound on YouTube, including one in which he shows off his dance moves with the Phillie Phanatic, the Phillies’ mascot.
Schwab said she just received a request from an outlet that wanted Gritty to show up so they could carve his form into a block of cheese.
“There was always hope that he would be well-embraced but obviously this is bigger than we would have guessed,” Heller said.
Gritty mania started when he was born, bolstered by two unscripted falls as he skated for the first time on the Philadelphia ice. People seem to relate to his rough opening night.
Heller was in the press box and noted the tumble.
“I said to someone, ‘Does that look like a real fall?’” Heller said. “He landed on his upper back. And then he shot someone in the back with a T-shirt cannon and he fell a second time. And I said, ‘OK, it’s him wiping out for sure.’”
Heller said Gritty showing “his clumsy side” won over fans. His Instagram and Twitter posts also have resonated. “It was the perfect storm,” Heller said.
The Gritty project was a couple of years in the making, launched because Flyers officials recognized they were missing out on a marketing opportunity. Mascots are popular, usually making about 250 appearances per year.
The Flyers originally consulted David Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic, about their desire to have a mascot. But the Flyers ended up with a design from Brian Allen of Flyland Designs.
The Flyers considered animals, a variety of creatures, monsters and fictional characters, aviation offerings and human portrayals before deciding on the 7-foot orange Gritty.
“We just figured a monster-like creature defines the tough ruggedness of the team and the Philly sports landscape,” Heller said.
Heller said the objective was to have Gritty connect with fans as one of their own. He is supposed to be the ultimate Flyers fan, but also someone who is defensive about standing up for his city.
Only one person plays the Gritty character, but the mascot code is that the person does so in anonymity. The Flyers don’t reveal who’s behind the mask.
“We’ve learned a lot of the mascot code over the past couple of months,” Schwab said. “When we are asked who he is, he’s just ‘Gritty.’”
Gritty doesn’t talk, but both hands and belly button squeak. The Flyers had a discussion about how sensitive the belly button squeaker needed to be to ensure it squeaked when kids hugged Gritty.
“We gave him googly eyes because it gives him another way to emote,” Schwab said.
No sign whatsoever that Gritty’s popularity is subsiding. Based on requests, Schwab said Gritty could be booked solid for multiple events a day if that is what the Flyers wanted.
Said Heller: “A day doesn’t go by that we don’t see that costume go past our doors.”