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The nitty-Gritty behind the birth of the Flyers’ mascot

Gritty's demented-goblin visage and social media snarkiness transformed a debut full of mockery into campy adoration. Intended to attract youngsters, he became a hard-edged Philly hero.

Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers' new mascot, has gone from being scorned to being adored in the weeks since his debut.
Gritty, the Philadelphia Flyers' new mascot, has gone from being scorned to being adored in the weeks since his debut.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Ed Snider could be as prickly and combative as an NHL enforcer, so it's no coincidence that the Age of Gritty dawned when the Flyers' founder was terminally ill.

"Ed was an old-school guy," said Dave Raymond, the original Phillie Phanatic and a consultant during the process that led to Gritty's spectacularly successful September launch. "He didn't want this."

For Snider, who died in April 2016, there was no place for furry creatures in the man-to-man battles he and the team that mirrored his personality so regularly fought.

"I used to ride my four-wheeler over to the Spectrum for Sixers playoff games and one night I decided to go over for a Flyers game," Raymond, who stepped down as the Phanatic in 1993, recalled last week. "The next morning the Flyers called my bosses. They said, 'Don't ever do that again. We don't want him anywhere near us.' "

No mascot, not even the Phanatic, ever triggered a phenomenon like the one that followed Gritty's Sept. 24 introduction. In a single day, his demented-goblin visage and social-media snarkiness transformed a mocking response into campy adoration. The fat and fuzzy mascot intended to attract youngsters became a hard-edged Philly hero.

There was Gritty live on the Tonight Show. There he was being ridiculed on HBO's Last Week Tonight, on Saturday Night Live, on national newscasts. There he was tripping on the Wells Fargo Center ice, trolling his Pittsburgh Penguins counterpart on Twitter, swatting a display of toy sharks off the Adventure Aquarium's gift-shop shelf.

Suddenly, fans of a team that always spurned mascots and embraced its bad-boy image were going gaga over a goofy orange monster. Gritty had 28,000 Twitter followers 12 hours after his rollout, 60,000 at the end of his first day, 140,000 by Friday.

Genius? Maybe just luck

The story of how it happened began in Nashville in 2016 and ended 33 months later at a Philadelphia children's museum. It's a story about the power of social media, the value of thoughtful planning, and maybe most of all the mystery of dumb luck.

"From the Flyers' standpoint, this was beyond an A plus-plus," said Raymond. "The amount of money those media impressions represent is astronomical. You can't buy that. You can't expect that. And you probably can't do it again."

The seed was planted during the Mascots Showdown at Nashville's 2016 NHL All-Star Game. That's when Joe Heller, the Flyers' marketing vice president, and some colleagues started to think seriously about the unthinkable.

By then, young Flyers executives with fresh ideas had infiltrated the tradition-bound organization. "Fan engagement" was their mantra and they saw that demand for public appearances was outstripping their ability to fill them with active and retired Flyers.

In Nashville, they also saw that 20 other NHL teams — even Original Six stalwarts like Boston and Montreal — had mascots who, easier than Bob Kelly or Dave Schultz, could interact effectively with children or casual fans.

"We were looking for ways introduce the Flyers in different ways to different areas," said Heller, 35. "We thought we were missing out on between 250 and 300 different appearances in any given season. So we made the commitment to add a mascot."

Snider's passing and planning for a Flyers' 50th-anniversary celebration in 2017-18 delayed the process. Finally, toward the end of last season, they were ready. Raymond was summoned to a Wells Fargo Center meeting.

Since stepping aside as the Phanatic in 1993, the West Grove resident has operated a company that consults with teams and businesses in creating and training mascots. He told the Flyers that organizational commitment would be more essential than the character's look and design.

"I started off by saying, 'You guys know that it's all going to be negative when you roll him out, right? You could have the incarnation of the Phanatic and you're going to get slammed,' " Raymond said. "Right away I knew we were in great shape because they went, 'Yep, we know it. We're prepared for it. We can't wait for it.' "

>> READ MORE: What is Gritty? A 'lovable monster,' the orange embodiment of Philly and the Flyers, or a brand marketing breakthrough?

Such a response, said Raymond, contrasted markedly with how the 76ers reacted to widespread criticism after the 2015 unveiling of Franklin, their blue-dog mascot.

"There was no commitment," said Raymond, who had a role in the 76ers project. "They were just testing the waters. That won't work. You've got to go, 'This is what we're going to do and this is why. We're committing budget and time and no matter what happens, we're sticking with it.' "

Once their commitment was clear, the Flyers had to bring the mascot idea to life. Would it be an animal like Franklin? A human? An avatar of Philadelphia? An indistinct creature like the Phanatic?

Raymond's company helped design a bull, a reference to the Cup-winning Broad Street Bullies, that was a favorite of many in the organization. Others, trying to play off the team's name, preferred something aviation-related. At one point, there was even an effort to concoct an Eric Lindros-proportioned, tough-guy creature.

"Nothing really seemed to fit who we are," said Heller.

After several rounds of mockups, revisions, and rejections, Heller said, the Flyers "landed on this monster-like creature."

Before they could devise its appearance, they needed a name and a backstory to guide them. If he wasn't going to be Bully, Gritty seemed apt. Then they concocted a Phantom of the Opera-like origin tale. Gritty, it went, loved the Flyers, a devotion he developed and nurtured while living alone and undetected beneath their arenas.

They decided Gritty should look like an exaggerated embodiment of a Flyer. He would be hirsute, wild-eyed, physically intimidating, with a slightly askew helmet. Again recalling the Phanatic's origins, Raymond suggested he also be portly.

'Bill [Giles] knew fatter was funnier," he said of the Phillies' chairman emeritus. "He kept telling the Phanatic's designer, 'Fatter, fatter. Funnier, funnier.' "

>> READ MORE: Gritty makes debut like a wrecking ball at Flyers home opener

As for color, unlike the Phanatic, made green to contrast with the dominant red at Phillies games, Gritty would be composed of the team's colors, orange, and black.

The face, which has been called everything from frightening to demonic, was most difficult. Heller said he didn't mind if the mascot frightened some kids, but it also needed to be a "gentle giant." So Gritty's original malevolent smile was untwisted and broadened.

The final design was sent to Ardia Dayton, a costume builder in Norristown who had worked with Raymond before. When it came to filling that costume, the Flyers chose someone they and Raymond knew, a young man — the team asked that his name not be used — who had performed for the minor-league Phantoms.

"This kid was perfect," said Raymond. "He's going to be one of the best mascots in the country."

>> OPINION: Flyers fans don't need Gritty. They have grit.

A hit with kids

Finally, on Sept. 24, before 600 kids at the Please Touch Museum, and with an elaborate production that included music, an emcee and a smoke-framed entrance, Gritty met the public. The children took to him instantly — hugging, high-fiving, dancing with the creature.

"It was amazing," said Raymond. "There wasn't a single kid crying, which never happens. There's always some crying kid turning around and running in fear, even if the character looks like a teddy bear."

>> READ MORE: Gritty is introduced and immediately ridiculed on social media

As they watched, Heller showed Raymond some of the initial social-media reaction. While almost all was negative, some was darkly humorous.

"There were the typical 'You suck!' and 'That's so ugly!' But a lot of it was really funny and creative," said Raymond.

Even when the tweets were nasty, Flyers officials eagerly passed them around.

"We were like, 'Oh, here comes the negative onslaught.' 'We don't want a mascot.' 'We don't like the way it looks.' That kind of thing really took off at first," said Heller.

But gradually, the tone turned perversely flippant. By cleverly riffing on Gritty, the trolls, perhaps inadvertently, helped make him popular.

The pivotal point in the transition, said Heller, came when the Penguins' mascot dissed Gritty in a tweet.

"We regrouped and collectively fired back, 'Sleep with one eye open, Bird!' " said Heller. "Right then, the fans seemed to go, 'OK, now that people from other areas are attacking him, we're going to support him.'

"After he came to life, he had an edge about him that represented the Flyers and their grittiness. He stood up for Philly, gave it to the opponents, and fans loved that kind of stuff."

That same night as he was introduced to older Flyers fans at the exhibition game, Gritty slipped on the ice. The gaffe and the mascot's subsequent tweet — "Why didn't anybody tell me the ice is this slippery?" — only enhanced the budding phenomenon.

>> READ MORE: Flyers players weigh in on Gritty: "We'll see how Gritty he is"

"That wasn't anything planned," Heller said of the fall. "But there was tons of video on it and I think people started to say, 'Hey, this is a little different from your traditional mascot.' I think they moved on from the way he looked to the way he acted and how he stuck up for the team."

Another test came on Oct. 9 when the Flyers lost their home opener to San Jose. Raymond braced himself for criticism that because the team was so wrapped up with Gritty, its performance had suffered.

"But I'm listening to WIP late the next afternoon and the host says, 'They did such a great job with Gritty, but they lost, 8-2.' And I thought, 'Oh my God, that's amazing. He managed to separate those two things.' "

Now, with the media buzz slowing, the freshness fading, Gritty must survive as a mascot. Will he have the Phanatic's enduring appeal? Or will he soon be just another costumed creature, shaking his belly, hugging young fans but devoid of any real distinction?

"Sure, it'll die down," said Raymond. "He'll go to schools, visit people, make fans laugh at games. And it will be like it's supposed to be. This is Gritty's 15 minutes of fame. It all has a cycle and we're already on its downturn. But he now is cemented in Flyers tradition. It's wet cement, for sure, but this moment will never be forgotten."