From the Desk of Nicholas Hirshon: NHL Mascots and Fan Criticism

Hirshon_Nick1Nicholas Hirshon is an assistant professor of communication at William Paterson University and author of We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders, forthcoming this December and available now for pre-order.

Try as they might, marketers may never understand what, exactly, sports fans expect from mascots.

The age-old conundrum became apparent again yesterday when the Philadelphia Flyers introduced their new mascot, Gritty, a wild-eyed, orange creature who resembles Animal the muppet on ice skates, and off his diet.

The uproar was immediate. The hometown Inquirer summed up the fans’ incredulity with “What the puck?” The Daily Beast called the mascot “horrifying” and the stuff of “nightmares.” Fans donated to a GoFundMe campaign to “euthanize Gritty.”

Even for the notorious Philly fan base, that’s harsh.

The reaction reminded me of the reception that befell another NHL mascot, the New York Islanders’ Nyiles, when he debuted in 1995 to inaugurate the team’s ill-fated fisherman logo rebrand. Like Gritty, Nyiles—his name was a play on “NY Isles,” and pronounced NIGH-ils—didn’t have an obvious connection to the team. In short, nobody knew what he was. Just some dude with an Islanders jersey and a flowing, red beard, apparently. He was also outfitted with a red goal light atop his head that flashed whenever the Islanders scored—not often in those days, as they were perennial cellar-dwellers.

HirshonWhile researching my forthcoming book We Want Fish Sticks: The Bizarre and Infamous Rebranding of the New York Islanders, I read countless pages of press reports on Nyiles, watched every YouTube clip I could find of him in action, and even interviewed two men who played him and the fan who won the contest to name him.

I discovered that Islanders fans were merciless toward their own mascot. They poked him with their fists and tried to knock off his gigantic head. One fan punched him in the face and sent him flying backwards over the seats in the row behind him. Another whacked him in the crotch with a hockey stick at a street hockey fair.

Nyiles started wearing a cup after that.

The “Euthanize Gritty” campaign reminded me of a quote from a New York Times story on Nyiles. Asked by the New York Times for his opinion on the mascot, a 10-year-old boy said, “I’d like to assassinate him.”

Gritty, meet your mascot forebear.

So what have I learned after writing a doctoral dissertation on the worst sports branding failure of all time? For starters, the mascot’s fate lies in subjective, and often irrational, judgments by fans and the news media, largely based on hasty first impressions. In the mascot business, it’s difficult to predict what will or won’t work.

In most respects, Gritty is a fine mascot. He’s goofy looking and fun loving, the sort of character that can make fans laugh during a lull in action and create an entertaining game experience even when, inevitably, the Flyers lose now and then. His muppet-like features add to his uniqueness and, dare I say, charm.

That’s not to say Gritty is perfect. If I could change anything about him, I’d make his eyes look less sinister. From the wrong angle, especially in still images where he’s not clearly acting silly, he looks more menacing than merry.

But many fans have raised questions about what Gritty is, and I think any criticism based on his uncertain lineage is misguided. After all, it’s best not to overthink the origins of any mascot. What species is the Phillie Phanatic, again? Brutus Buckeye can trace his family tree to what? A bunch of chestnuts? And I’m a Queens boy who loves the Mets, but let’s face it: Mr. Met, who was voted America’s favorite sports mascot several years ago, is some kind of mutant baseball that grew limbs, married another mutant baseball (Mrs. Met), and produced double-mutant baseball offspring (Baby Met). So let’s not pretend that successful mascots always make sense.

The surest route to the fan’s heart is winning. The Islanders’ fatal flaw in the mid-1990s was looking to rebranding as a way to escape their troubles. They didn’t have the money to spend on superstar players or much-needed arena improvements, so they figured they’d make a quick buck by changing logos and charging fans for new jerseys. The team did earn money, but they also alienated lots of fans and endured coast-to-coast negative publicity. As the losses mounted, Nyiles got caught in the storm.

Fortunately for Gritty’s creators, the 1995-1996 Islanders were much different from these 2018-2019 Flyers. With the addition of James van Riemsdyk this offseason, Philadelphia is expected to be on the NHL playoff bubble. If they make a deep run toward the Stanley Cup, Gritty will benefit from his association with a winning franchise. If they falter, Gritty will become a lightning rod for the Flyers’ failures.

Just a word of advice from Nyiles: If you don’t win the Cup, you better wear one.

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