He strides through the halls of Congress, orangey hair bobbing slightly with each step. The occasion calls for gravitas, and there, with the National Mall visible just beyond the grand marble foyer, he glad-hands members of Congress with aplomb. His platform is, like so much of what he does, openly contradictory: He feigns cooperation with the other side in one moment, only to flip-flop and offer a wet willy the next. He high-fives supporters, one great orange paw squeaking with contact.
On Wednesday, scarcely 12 hours after the president of the United States did the same in his State of the Union speech, Gritty addressed Congress. OK, not exactly; the Flyers’ mascot doesn’t speak. But, in the run-up to Wednesday evening’s Congressional Hockey Challenge—an annual ice hockey showdown pitting assorted lawmakers, their aides, and ailing knees against a crew of lobbyists (welcome to Washington, D.C.)—Gritty was part of the delegation dispatched to Congress, where he used a series of impassioned gesticulations, vaguely lewd hip thrusts, hyperathletic flops, and, yes, periodic hand squeaks to communicate the glory of hockey. Or something.
Gritty was not meant to be the star of the day. The event was billed as a chance to spotlight such worthy and wholesome issues as expanding the NHL’s inclusion efforts and the importance of middle school STEM education. Students kitted out in Capitals gear were brought in from a local school to underscore that last point, and a panel was convened with, among others, representatives from the NHL and NHLPA and a quartet of lawmakers (“God gave us hockey and I know why—because ice can’t exist in the other place,” quoth Minnesota Representative Tom Emmer). In the corresponding press release, Gritty wasn’t mentioned until the very end, where he was billed alongside two other mascots, the NJ Devil and Slapshot, the resident eagle persona of the hometown Caps.
But there was no denying what most people seemed to have come for. News of his impending arrival had already occasioned a write-up in DCist; “Now you guys can go see Gritty, I think,” said NBC News’s Frank Thorp V as he concluded moderating the morning’s panel, prompting a sudden exodus from a room filled with besuited legislative aides. “Do you know about Gritty?” one man asked a seatmate, who did not. “He’s terrifying,” he said with visible pleasure. “He’s like an orange freak.”
And so people gathered for the main event. Here: orange ties. There: Giroux sweaters (several) and a neon-orange Gritty baseball cap, with great big googly eyes. Everywhere: people in serious business attire declining to be quoted because they had not been authorized to speak publicly (on the subject, yes, of their affection for a 7-foot-tall orange plushie). The kids, meanwhile, were set loose: some to practice flicking makeshift pucks with Capitals-branded sticks, and others to fiddle with tablets. (The future of hockey! STEM!)
If you have ever been to somebody else’s party on your own birthday, you have an approximate understanding of what it’s like to be another mascot in the presence of Gritty, supernova weirdo and pan-internet obsession. Through reality-born planning or just happenstance, it was Gritty who marched into the event first, where he was swiftly mobbed by well-wishers. When the NJ Devil and Slapshot—again, the hometown mascot, at an event filled with kids wearing Capitals gear—entered together a few minutes later, there was not so much as a cheer. Your very sad short story, 2019 hockey edition: Gritty at the front of a rabid photo line; Slapshot playing with a hockey stick in the far corner, alone. “Are you bald because you’re a bald eagle?” one teen drolly asked the poor Caps mascot, who could only flap wanly.
“He’s kind of indicative of the chaos energy that is sort of swirling in the air these days,” said Maya Sapurka, 30, an avowed Capitals fan with a Gritty pin fastened to her backpack, of the Flyers icon. (Note to any listening eagles: She said she knew it was love when he shot a fan in the back with a T-shirt on Day 1.) “I think he embodies that. And it’s just like, there are very few things that I feel like bring pure joy, and he’s one of them.”
Surrounded by droves of Gritty faithful, the orange freak began theatrically—everything he does, from walking to waving to, in a moment of apparent boredom, flinging ice cubes from a spoon into a perplexedly supportive crowd, is theatrical—hugging any and all. At one point he stroked a redheaded woman’s long, auburn hair. One lawmaker approached for a selfie, at which point Gritty spied his congressional lapel pin, which he furtively rubbed for several beats too long.
One brave soul, Philadelphia native Lauren Smith, turned up in a full-body Gritty costume—a recycled Halloween creation, she explained—which prompted paroxysms of joy on the part of the original, who first tested his copy by repeatedly poking Smith in the belly and then took her by the arm to introduce her to his mascots-in-arms. Then, having apparently tired of chivalry, Gritty escorted Smith down a nearby hallway, where he promptly abandoned her. There was room for only one Gritty. (He then blew her a kiss and shook his rear end, so she came out about neutral.)
“He sort of embodied the Philadelphia ethos,” said Smith of the mascot’s appeal. “In the beginning, people wrote him off, and there was a lot of laughing and mocking and not taking him seriously. And then very quickly folks came around to embrace this kind of wacky, not ordinary, but wonderful, exciting character.”
“I love that he broke through the hockey barrier,” said Georgetown Law student Savannah Lang. “People who didn’t even know about hockey were talking about Gritty.”
“I love that he brought light to the game.”
Speaking of light: When it came time to take a group picture with the waiting students, it was Gritty who took the center of the mascot line, throwing his paws up in the iconic Nixon pose. And then he tried to give Slapshot bunny ears.