US & Canada

Gritty: How a NHL mascot became an internet sensation

Gritty is lowered into Ice Hockey arena Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gritty, a divisive orange monster mascot, has become a meme since his September launch

Before 2018, the Philadelphia Flyers ice hockey team had not had a mascot for more than four decades.

Enter Gritty: a seven-foot (slightly terrifying) orange hairy monster that comes complete with a beer-gut, squeaky belly button and wild googly eyes.

Since he was unleashed on the National Hockey League (NHL) stage in September, the mascot has become an internet sensation.

He's amassed almost 200,000 Twitter followers, made appearances on US talk shows, crashed a wedding and is being fought over as an icon for the US political far-left and far-right.

So how on earth did all of this Gritty mania begin?

The mascot's origin story on the Flyers' website claims he had been hiding for an unknown amount of time inside their arena, feasting on snow and leftover hot-dogs.

He was reportedly created after the son of the team's chief operating officer, Shawn Tilger, asked why they didn't have a participant in the NHL's 2018 mascot showdown event.

Cue a lengthy commissioning process where Gritty's quirks, including an ability to blow smoke from his ears, were ironed out by designers with the help of local children.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gritty was reportedly voted for dozens of times as a write-in candidate in the mid-term elections earlier this month

But Gritty's initial roll-out was rough.

A barrage of negative online comments from fans, including Philadelphia's own police department, mocked his unconventional appearance.

It took a couple of unfortunate slips during his debut appearance on the ice and an increasingly savvy social media presence to help Gritty turn the tide.

When the mascot was trolled online by the Pittsburgh Penguins account, he bit back, warning their state rivals: "Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird."

A viral Twitter thread by a local account which edited a menacing Gritty into stock images then helped propel the character worldwide.

Within a couple of days of his launch, Gritty had amassed more followers than all other mascots in the league, and posed for his very own Kim Kardashian break-the-internet-style photograph.

When he ascended into his first home game on a wrecking ball to the Miley Cyrus song of the same name, he won over even more plaudits.

In October in the midst of full Gritty-mania, Philadelphia city council passed a resolution to honour the mascot.

Council member Helen Gym, who penned the resolution, described him aptly: "A 7-foot tall orange hellion, a fuzzy eldritch horror, a ghastly empty-eyed Muppet with a Delco beard, a cross of Snuffleupagus and Oscar the Grouch, a deranged orange lunatic, an acid trip of a mascot, a shaggy orange Wookiee-esque grotesquerie..."

In her speech she also recognised Gritty's increasing politicisation.

Since his launch two months ago he's become a favourite in memes by the political left online and has also appeared on posters at anti-Donald Trump and anti-fascist protests in Philadelphia.

Gritty has also recently been featured in posts on a Neo-Nazi news website, in an apparent attempt to claim him for the US far-right, the Guardian reports.

But unlike with other politicised memes, like Pepe the Frog, Gritty's wider popularity shows no sign of abating.

He's earned name checks from comedian John Oliver, appeared alongside Ricky Gervais on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and was recently featured in his own interview with Sports Illustrated magazine.

From babies to dogs, homemade Gritty costumes were already a fan-favourite by Halloween.

Over the weekend, he trended worldwide again on Twitter after he showed up at a local Philadelphia wedding grooving to Bruno Mars.

Gritty is not alone in mascot stardom - he is the latest in a long line of weird sports mascots that have made headlines around the world.

But whether Gritty's 15 minutes of fame will be up soon or not, his presence will be lasting for some.

A number of fans are known to have already had the orange beast inked permanently on their skin.

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