But over a month into his life, Gritty, the mascot of hockey’s Philadelphia Flyers, has gained acceptance.
What’s more, he became the inspiration for Halloween costumes on humans, dogs and cats across the country. In his home city, such costumes were hard to find as Philadelphians scrambled to dress up as a creature who “may be a hideous monster, but he is our hideous monster,” as an official resolution last week put it.
Gritty himself urged the public to beware impostors.
I’ve been referred to many as “thiccc” so if you see a thicc or thic Grit, thou aren’t me
— Gritty (@GrittyNHL) October 31, 2018
It was just another day for the most talked-about mascot in professional sports and the newly beloved icon of the left.
Let’s back up. For decades, the Flyers were one of the few N.H.L. teams without a mascot. Team executives began to feel bereft during the 2016 and 2017 All-Star Games, where mascots like Iceburgh the penguin of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Youppi of the Montreal Canadiens, competed in their own game. They decided last year to fill the role.
This July, the team asked Brian Allen, a concept artist in Bellefonte, Pa., to send them sketches. He said the Flyers’ art directors suggested a bulldog, a monster or “an amorphic creature” like the Phillie Phanatic — the furry, green, long-snouted mascot who represents Philadelphia’s baseball team.
“They wanted it to look like the Phillie Phanatic and him could come from the same weird family or go to the same family reunion,” Mr. Allen said. “They wanted it to be somebody you wanted to high-five, but not hug.”
Sarah Schwab, the Flyers’ director of marketing, said the team’s senior leadership reviewed two final options. “One was kind of a safer option, and one more — I don’t want to say unsafe — but one that kind of pushed the boundaries,” she said. “That was Gritty.”
A costume company outside Philadelphia translated Mr. Allen’s design into a suit, adding the gigantic googly eyes and gloves that squeak. The Flyers wrote him a back story: He had long lived in a “secret hideout” in the organization’s arena before construction disturbed his lair. Finally, on Sept. 24, the organization unveiled its creation.
O.K., but what’s so special about Gritty? And why is he political?
Like another monster that was created by man and then burst, uninvited, into public sight, Gritty at first met a hostile reception. Many pronounced him the stuff of nightmares, and the Penguins from across the state dismissed him with a tweet: “lol ok.”
Gritty replied with menacing advice:
Then, at his debut game, he slipped on the ice. And the weird tweets kept coming.
Gradually, Philadelphians embraced Gritty, whose bellicose, sometimes inept character resonated in a city whose identity is wrapped up in a mix of blue-collar pride, defensiveness and a long history of athletic failure.
A few weeks after his introduction, the City Council welcomed the mascot in a resolution, declaring that while he had been described as a “fuzzy eldritch horror,” a “ghastly empty-eyed Muppet with a Delco beard” and a “shaggy orange Wookiee-esque grotesquerie,” the council “honors the spirit and passion that Gritty has brought to the City of Philadelphia and to the entire country.”
Councilwoman Helen Gym said she had been inspired to write the resolution, in part, because Gritty’s appeal went beyond sports.
“These are extraordinarily challenging times in our country, and I think people need to come together through loving something, an entity that is unafraid to be itself,” she said. “We’re the original city of rebels and revolutionaries, and I think that this initially ghastly, appalling creature strolled in at a time when we least expected it but probably most needed it.”
Before long, Gritty’s persona had escaped his creators’ intentions. Left-wing activists made him a socialist meme and antifa hero: a blue-collar monster, reclaimed from its marketing creators, fighting on behalf of workers against the absurdities of capitalism.
Enav Emmanuel, a member of the group Philly Socialists, said the left had claimed Gritty much as the far right claimed a comic strip character, Pepe the Frog, who became a symbol of hate speech during the 2016 election.
But Emmanuel, who identifies as nonbinary, said that Gritty was less about trolling than levity and that many left-wing activists identified with the mascot’s cheerful, unkempt and maniacal demeanor. “It’s about loving people and reaching across borders,” they said. “But at the same time it can involve serious and dangerous things.”
By early October, Gritty and his left-wing fans were the subject of articles, including a Wall Street Journal editorial page writer’s vehement dispute of antifa’s claim over the mascot.
Is Gritty antifa? Does it matter?
Michael Goldman, a professor of sport management at the University of San Francisco, said Gritty’s life outside hockey seemed to be a symptom of the turbulent political climate. “Ideas are up for grabs,” he said. “People are going to draw on whatever symbols they can to reinforce their identities.”
And fans have long read their hopes and beliefs into fictional characters, as they’ve done with Bert and Ernie of “Sesame Street” for decades. “We’re at a time where it feels like people are grasping for leaders — not that Gritty is a leader, but what he could represent,” said Dan Rascher, also a professor of sport management at the University of San Francisco.
Unlike Nike’s decision to embrace Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who has led protests against racism and police brutality, the creation of Gritty had no political calculus, said Ms. Schwab, the Flyers executive. “He doesn’t really know his right from his left,” she said.
But Gritty was well designed for his city and his era, everyone agreed, especially his social media personality, which works with the Flyers but also exists outside the team, riffing on pop culture and interacting with fans and foes.
Americus Reed, a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, said Gritty was like “a quasi-reality TV show on social media,” a step beyond the eccentric Twitter profiles of corporations like Wendy’s and MoonPie. “It’s taking on a life of its own,” he said.
Mr. Allen, the original artist, had a simpler explanation for Gritty’s appeal. “He’s like the anti-mascot.”