On Sept. 24, Bellefonte graphic artist Brian Allen did his best to try to avoid social media.
The mascot that he designed for the Philadelphia Flyers — Gritty — had just been unleashed on the world, and the Flyers organization warned Allen that the initial reaction might not be all that great.
But as hard as he tried, Allen could not completely block out the giant tidal wave that washed over all corners of the internet when the orange, fuzzy monster with wild googly eyes and a beer gut first shimmied and shook his way onto the stage in front of a room full of screaming children at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.
“The first two days, the reaction was kind of overwhelming and negative, mainly from the most hardcore fans, and I tried to stay away from that, but it’s hard to disconnect yourself completely, obviously,” he said.
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@GrittyNHL introduced himself to the Twitter world with a signed portrait of himself with his arms outstretched, with the caption: “It me. #Gritty.”
The reaction — mostly negative — was quick to follow.
Gritty was cast as “terrifying,” “nightmare fuel,” “horrifyingly delightful” and a cross between Grimace and Animal from “The Muppets,” as well as various other mascots — on meth.
“Has to be the most scary mascot I have seen in a long time.” “OMG...KILL IT WITH FIRE!!!! #whatisthat.” “I say this as a lifelong @penguins fan. Flyers fans deserve better...” “Everyone involved in the making should be fired.” “This might be the WORST mascot of all time lololol.”
Then the memes started. People took to Photoshopping the new mascot into scenes from horror films like “The Shining,” crawling out from street gutters, peering out from behind trees and posting videos of children screaming after getting their first glimpse of Gritty.
But then, within 24 hours, the tide started to shift, and Gritty went from being rejected, to embraced — especially by those in Philadelphia.
It started with a few tweets. Gritty “clapped back” at the Pittsburgh Penguins after they retweeted Gritty’s picture with the caption “Lol ok,” with “Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird,” and a GIF of Gritty turning his head menacingly toward the camera.
Then came Allen’s all-time favorite Gritty tweet — a re-creation of Kim Kardashian’s #BreaktheInternet Paper Magazine cover where he squirted a Gatorade bottle full of liquid into a champagne glass balanced on his rear. “Goodnight, internet,” the caption read.
He also made his debut on ice, wiping out, several times, shooting unsuspecting people in the back with a T-shirt gun and causing general chaos between periods.
“Instead of running from the negative reaction, they really embraced it and reacted to it hour by hour, really,” Allen said of the Flyers’ marketing team. “They did plan a lot for this, but there’s only so much you can plan for, so they were really just thinking on their feet and improvising and doing a lot of great little things quickly that built up Gritty’s personality as sort of an anti-mascot, sort of a guy with an attitude, which was perfect for Philly.”
Once Allen’s name was out on the internet as the artist behind what was simultaneously becoming both the most feared and loved mascot of all time, the Penn State graduate’s inboxes started to get bombarded by messages. Some were still negative, but many were positive — inviting Allen to join various Gritty fan clubs and sending him fan art of all kinds — cakes, pizzas, drawings, and his favorite — a realistic Etch A Sketch re-creation.
People were even getting Gritty tattoos, which to Allen meant Gritty had made it.
“I don’t know, for some reason, seeing somebody willing to put that on their body forever just convinced me that Gritty is here to stay, and I think he was starting to earn people’s respect,” Allen said.
Allen was right, Gritty is certainly here to stay. He quickly amassed more Twitter followers than any other NHL mascot — including the former reigning NHL mascot king Bailey, of the Los Angeles Kings, and then transcended the NHL into realms not typically traveled by hockey mascots.
He got picked up as a political symbol by groups on the far left — and then by those from the far right. He got a resolution passed in his honor by Philadelphia City Council, appeared on late night shows such as “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” and has had articles written about him in publications such as Ad Week, The New Yorker and The New York Times.
He even had a grassroots movement going to make him Time Magazine’s Person of the Year.
It’s hard to put a finger on what exactly has made Gritty such a success, but Allen thinks it has to do with Gritty’s attitude, and the way he walks that line between being terrifying and lovable at the same time.
“Consumers today are pretty savvy. Everyone everywhere is trying to sell us something. So if you just come out with a traditional and safe mascot that’s just so obviously a cookie-cutter mascot, people are really going to be turned off by that, and he wouldn’t last a year,” Allen said. “People would just forget about him and ignore him. So instead, we just tried to make this mascot, this creature that no one has ever seen.”
Some of Allen’s initial sketches had Gritty looking even scarier, with downturned eyebrows, fangs and missing or chipped teeth. But the Flyers wanted Gritty to be more “family-friendly” and approachable for children. “Someone you’d want to high-five but not hug,” the Flyers told him.
Through several sketches, Allen worked to refine Gritty, making him look less angry, while still “a bit grumpy” and mischievous.
“My theory — the reason so many people can identify with him is because he is a blank slate. People keep asking me what he is, and I don’t have an answer. He’s just a creature — whatever you want him to be,” Allen said. “So I think that’s something that makes him so easy to meme and make represent whatever your cause is.”
Gritty has lived up to his inspiration as a prankster — picking up children who try to fight him on the ice and throwing them into the penalty box — and smashing the penalty box and throwing towels onto the ice when he was thrown in there himself.
Allen and his family got to meet Gritty in person — or “in monster” — in October when the Flyers gave them tickets to a game. Meeting his creation come to life was “pretty wild,” Allen said, and his family was able to get a great photo for their Christmas card.
Since knowledge of Allen as the artist behind Gritty spread, he has been interviewed by national publications, including Vox, and even appeared on one of his favorite podcast for artists, “Adventures in Design.”
“It’s probably the most respected art podcast,” Allen said. “They invited me to come on the show and talk about Gritty, which was a big deal for me, because I had always been just a fan and a listener to the show. I would’ve never dared to dream that I’d be on it, so that was a big deal for me.”
He’s also given talks locally, speaking to the [CP]2 group for marketing and advertising professionals.
Allen said he and Flyland Designs, the freelance design business he runs from his home with his wife, get a lot of contacts about Gritty, but they aren’t so much projects as they are people asking if they can use Gritty’s face for T-shirts, children’s books and various other projects — things Allen can’t give permission for.
“I forget sometimes that it’s only been two months since all this happened,” he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see what next year brings.”
Some of Allen’s upcoming projects include possibly his first pinball machine and another design for Hard Rock Cafe, and his typical T-shirts, album covers and logos.
As of now, his plans do not include any other hockey mascots. However, the Rangers still do not have a mascot, and the Red Wings’ giant blowup “Al the Octopus” was sold last year at an auction.
“Maybe I should give them a call,” Allen said with a laugh.