AT the same time as Ben Simmons and Joe Ingles have been making headlines in the NBA playoffs, another Aussie is creating waves in a possible championship run in the US.
Nathan Walker became the first Australian to play in the NHL when his debuted for the Washington Capitals earlier in the season.
Now the 24-year-old has added a new chapter to his breakthrough season, helping eliminate the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions, Pittsburgh Penguins, from the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The left winger didn’t waste any time making his presence felt in his first playoff game, providing the assist on the game’s opening goal.
Walker showed his speed to win the puck ahead of two Penguins defenders, rounded the net and Alex Chiasson one-timed his perfect pass past goaltender Matt Murray.
Spending more than eight minutes on the ice, Walker went head-to-head with Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby on several shifts.
After finishing 1-1 in regular time, Washington claimed a thrilling over-time win to move onto the conference finals, where they’ll face Tampa Bay Lightning.
It’s been a long road for Walker, born in Wales and raised in Australia, before moving to the Czech Republic as a 14-year-old to pursue his hockey dream.
Not content with simply making his debut, Walker scored a goal in the Capitals’ 6-1 win over Montreal in October.
However, he would feature in only seven more games before being placed on waivers and claimed by Edmonton.
His time with the Oilers was brief, playing just two games, before returning to Washington.
Walker’s solid form in the American Hockey League saw him called up as a squad player for the Caps’ playoff run.
While he didn’t feature in the Capitals’ first-round series win over Columbus, or the first five games against the Penguins, he was given his chance in the pivotal Game 6 and the rest, as they say, is history.
The new Flyers mascot had just destroyed the set of the “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.”
Within seconds of being unleashed, he headed straight for Questlove’s drum set and started tossing his sticks across the room. As Fallon and Ricky Gervais attempted to dance to Boyz II Men, the bizarre, orange, bearded, googly eyed creature cut in and started an all-out brawl with the two comedians.
Later, as he left 30 Rock in full costume and headed to his chartered helicopter — yes, a mascot for a hockey team had his own helicopter waiting for him — the all-seeing eyes of TMZ had caught wind of his location. They chased him down the street, screaming his name:
Within three days of his creation, Gritty had become a sensation. But where did he come from? And what the hell is he?
Before he was hockey’s most talked about personality since Wayne Gretzky, he was an idea that started in the Flyers’ marketing department. At the 2016 All-Star weekend festivities, the Flyers were one of two teams in the NHL — along with the Rangers — who didn’t have an official mascot. Every year, the weekend features the NHL Mascot Showdown, which pits each team’s mascot against each other in a friendly competition.
As one of the three teams that was unable to participate (Al the Octopus, the Red Wings’ mascot, is not costumed), the Flyers felt it was time to develop a mascot that could go toe-to-toe with their rivals’. But in regards to what he would look like, the answer wasn’t obvious. The Flyers were uninterested in exploring their flying theme. Nor did they want to channel their “Broad Street Bullies” nickname. They wanted to do something wildly different.
“We wanted to be all-in with this mascot,” said Sarah Schwab, 31, the Flyers’ director of marketing and communications. “We wanted to make a statement.”
And make a statement they did. After commissioning more than 100 different artists and reviewing countless sketches, they landed on the prototype that became Gritty. Created by Pennsylvania artist Brian Allen, Gritty was concocted as an “amorphous monster creature,” according to Schwab.
“We had a safe version that was light and friendly and the typical kid-friendly mascot — not to say that Gritty isn’t kid-friendly, because he is — but we wanted something that was going to stand out from the crowd,” said Joe Heller, 35, the Flyers’ VP of marketing and communications.
“We want fans to high-five him. We don’t really want fans to hug him. His name is Gritty for a reason.”
The Flyers rolled him out Sept. 24, revealing him in a menacing photograph set against a pitch-black background. They also tweeted a now-viral 30-second video that saw Gritty skating out in front of flashing neon lights, shaking his belly and rolling his googly eyes over a jarringly intense electronic song.
The internet was frightened. Memes ensued. John Oliver, Stephen Colbert and “Good Morning America” all took notice. CBS Sports called Gritty “pure, unadulterated nightmare fuel.”
“None of us really thought that his look would be so much the focal point of the backlash,” Heller said. “We thought it would be, ‘We don’t need a mascot.’ Looking back, the black backdrop that he took the photo in front of, that probably wasn’t the greatest choice.”
“That was probably some of the nightmare fuel,” Schwab added.
But it quickly became apparent that he was more than that creepy photo. He had a personality that few mascots in the history of sports could match. Gritty’s personality exploded onto the worldwide stage on a whirlwind first day.
The antics started in his first hour of existence. In response to Gritty’s photo, the rival Pittsburgh Penguins lobbed up a “softball,” as Heller put it.
“Lol ok,” the Penguins wrote in response to his photo. Gritty fired back.
“Sleep with one eye open tonight, bird.” The post was retweeted over 4,600 times.
That same day, Gritty made his debut on home ice before the Flyers’ preseason game against the Boston Bruins. It did not go well.
“The first 50 feet on the ice, and he bit it,” Heller said. “I didn’t think it was scripted because it looked like he had a hard landing. Sure enough, it wasn’t. He just fell. After, he said, ‘Who knew ice was slippery?’”
Between the launch, the Penguins’ clapback and the tumble on the ice, Gritty had made more headlines in 12 hours than most mascots make in their entire existence. But he saved his best moment of the day for last. As the Flyers’ staff sat down for their press meal that night, digital media coordinator Lauren Robins, who runs Gritty’s Twitter account, had an idea.
“I was thinking to myself, he’s about to break Twitter, Twitter is going to break and it’s going to be all our fault,” Robins said. “Then I was like, oh my goodness. Kim Kardashian. Break the internet.”
The 25-year-old Robins, described by Schwab as “Gritty’s brain unleashed on the internet,” whipped up a Photoshop of Gritty’s face onto Kim Kardashian’s infamous nude Paper Magazine cover shoot.
Paired with the simple caption, “Goodnight, internet,” Robins tweeted out the photo. The image exploded overnight. As it did, Gritty completed his transformation from frightening orange oddity to full-on folk hero.
“The Kim Kardashian tweet was the turning point,” Schwab said.
By the next day, everyone knew who Gritty was. Fallon’s staff at the “Tonight Show” invited him to be on the show that Thursday, three days after he was born. The only problem? The Flyers had a preseason game the same night, and missing it was out of the question.
“Gritty is first and foremost for Flyers fans and the city of Philadelphia,” Schwab said. “There’s no way he can miss his own game because he’s gotten too big for his britches and gone out to New York.
“I walked into our COO’s office and said, ‘We’re not going to be able to get Gritty back to Philadelphia in time for the game.’ He asked if I had a solution. I said, ‘I do, but you might not like it.’”
The solution was to charter a helicopter, and the Flyers approved. Gritty escaped the TMZ reporters to a helipad in the city, where he flew from New York to Philadelphia. He got a police escort to the arena and ended up arriving early.
In the months since, the legend of Gritty has only continued to grow. Much of this can be attributed to Robins, who has turned him into the most followed mascot on Twitter. When WWE star Elias ripped the city of Philadelphia and called Gritty a “fat, ugly, googly-eyed slob,” Robins tweeted a photo of Gritty body-slamming Elias, with the caption, “Heard I got called out last night by some guy with a ponytail named Jeff.”
Gritty’s most popular tweet came two weeks ago, ahead of Time Magazine announcing its annual “Person of the Year.”
“I really wanted to Photoshop Gritty onto the cover of Time and be really forward about it, to say he should be Time’s Person of the Year,” Robins said. “Then it hit me like a train — if we switch the I and T in Time, it spells ‘It Me.’ ” (“It Me” was the caption the Flyers tweeted out with Gritty’s first official photo.) The image has been retweeted more than 21,000 times.
Gritty has even transcended the world of sports to other corners of the internet. When President Trump visited Philadelphia in October, a protester raised a banner saying, “GRITTY SAY G.T.F.O. OF PHILLY.” The image went viral, and now Antifa Gritty is all over the memesphere.
The Flyers, however, have no interest in conflating Gritty with politics.
“Gritty doesn’t know his right from his left,” Schwab says.
On Nov. 30, Gritty showed up at the Rutgers-Michigan State basketball game in New Jersey. Why an NHL mascot would be at a Big Ten college basketball game is a question in and of itself. But at halftime, there he was, fully costumed, lumbering out onto the floor with his big belly bobbing up and down.
Someone gave him a basketball at half court. He took a shot. He drained it. Because of course he did.
“So much of what happened with Gritty is completely organic,” Heller said. “There really is no script at this point.”
We know Gritty looks like a cross between the Dodgers’ Justin Turner and a misshapen carrot. We know he’s a wide-reaching internet force. We know there’s nothing he can’t do.
But the question still remains: What the hell is Gritty?
Seattle is getting a National Hockey League team. It will just have to wait a little bit longer to drop the puck.
The NHL Board of Governors unanimously approved adding Seattle as the league’s 32nd franchise on Tuesday, with play set to begin in 2021 instead of 2020 to allow enough time for arena renovations.
The as-yet unnamed franchise will be the Emerald City’s first major winter sports team since the NBA’s SuperSonics left town in 2008.
“Today is a day for celebration in a great city that adores and avidly supports its sports teams and for our 101-year-old sports league,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
“Expanding to Seattle makes the National Hockey League more balanced, even more whole and even more vibrant. A team in Seattle evens the number of teams in our two conferences, brings our geographic footprint into greater equilibrium and creates instant new rivalries out west, particularly between Seattle and Vancouver.”
The announcement came a few moments after Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan let the news slip at a watch party in Seattle, prompting cheers: “I got a call from a mole in the room and it was a unanimous vote. We’re getting hockey.”
The decision was widely expected after the Seattle Hockey Partners group impressed the board’s executive committee in October with a plan that had all the ingredients the NHL was looking for.
Strong ownership led by billionaire David Bonderman and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, a downtown arena in a sports-crazed city and a season-ticket drive that drummed up 10,000 orders in 12 minutes all cleared the way for the NHL to add another team less than three years after approving a franchise in Las Vegas.
Teddy Bears hurled at players
Seattle Hockey President and CEO Tod Leiweke joked that he’d have to throw out some Seattle 2020 business cards because of the pushed-back timing. But all sides agreed 2021 was the best time to start.
“They’ve always felt that we should have a little more time to build the arena right,” Bruckheimer said.
“We wanted to bring it to 2020-21 because we want to get going right away, but it’s not fair to the fans or to the players to not have a 100 per cent finished arena when we start.”
The owners will pay a $650 million expansion fee, up from the $500 million the Vegas Golden Knights paid to join the league just two years ago. Leiweke said arena renovations will cost $800 million and the addition of a state-of-the-art practice facility makes it a total investment of over $1.5 billion.
“(That’s) a few bits of change which aren’t around anymore,” Bonderman said of the spending.
“Seattle is one of my favourite cities and it’s a pleasure to be here. If it was someplace else, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Brutal hit knocks out teeth
The NHL will also realign its two divisions in the West for the 2021-22 season: Seattle will play the Pacific, home to its closest geographic rivals like Vancouver, Calgary and San Jose, and the Arizona Coyotes will move to the Central Division.
“It was at the end of the day the simplest, most logical and least disruptive option we had available to us and I think it’ll work well for the Coyotes,” Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said.
The remarkable debut by Vegas in 2017, which included a run to the Stanley Cup Final, gave the league more confidence about moving forward so quickly. Seattle will benefit from the same expansion draft rules Vegas had.
Its front office is expected to be led by Dave Tippett, a former coach who would lead the search for the club’s first general manager and staff. Tippett signed on to the project because of a connection to Leiweke, a major force in delivering an NHL team to Seattle.
Leiweke got his start in hockey with the Minnesota Wild. He also worked in Vancouver and most recently helped build Tampa Bay into a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. Leiweke left the Lightning in 2015 to become the COO of the NFL and didn’t have any interest in leaving the league office until the project in Seattle began to gain traction.
Leiweke’s job will be to capitalise on a market whose demographics have changed significantly since he left the NFL’s Seahawks in 2010 after being largely responsible for the team hiring coach Pete Carroll.
Seattle is the largest market in the country without a winter pro sports franchise and has seen an influx of wealth in recent years. Even when he was running the Seahawks, Leiweke believed Seattle was ripe for the NHL and the response to the season-ticket drive only strengthened that belief.
“I woke up today thinking about the fans,” Leiweke said.
“What did they feel on March 1 when they put down deposits without knowing anything? No team name, an ownership group they didn’t know very well, a building plan that was back then somewhat defined but fairly vague. Today is a great day for the fans and we owe them so much. That’s why today happened.”
The NHL’s launch in Seattle will show how starved fans are for another team. Basketball is embedded in the DNA of the region thanks to 41 years of the SuperSonics and a lengthy history of producing NBA talent.
When the rain of the fall and winter drive young athletes inside, they grab a basketball and head for the nearest gym to play pickup games. Basketball courts and coffee shops seem to be on every corner, but ice rinks are scarce.
A lot about Seattle is different from 2008, when the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City. The skyline is filled with construction cranes. Amazon has taken over an entire section of the city, joined nearby by satellite offices of Google and Facebook.
The amount of wealth now in the Seattle market is part of the reason Tim Leiweke, Tod’s older brother and the CEO of event facilities giant Oak View Group, has regularly called the city one of the most enticing expansion opportunities in pro sports history.
Seattle has become a city of transplants due to the booming local economy. A hockey franchise would provide those newcomers a team to rally around, much like what happened when the Sounders of Major League Soccer arrived in 2009 – the last team added to the city’s sport landscape.
The Sonics were the first, joining the NBA in 1967, followed by the arrival of the Seahawks in 1976 and Mariners in 1977 after construction of the Kingdome.
There have been several attempts at solving Seattle’s arena issues and landing either an NHL or NBA team in the years since the Sonics left, but none had the support of the city or the private money attached until now.
Asked Tuesday about possibly adding an NBA team, Bonderman responded: “One miracle at a time.”
While Seattle basks in the news, it’s not clear the NHL will be satisfied at 32 teams even with the new team providing balance between the conferences and a natural, cross-border rival for the Vancouver Canucks.
Daly said recently that there’s no magic number, even though no major North American sports league has ever grown beyond 32 teams.
Houston, Quebec City and Toronto have all been touted as possible new homes some day, but they’ll also have to wait.
“We’re not looking right now and I think for the foreseeable future at any further expansion,” Bettman said.
AFTER 43 seasons, the Washington Capitals are finally sitting on top of hockey.
Lars Eller broke a tie with 7:37 to play, and the Capitals raised the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history after a 4-3 victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 on Thursday night.
Devante Smith-Pelly tied it with a full-stretch goal midway through the final period of the Capitals’ fourth consecutive victory over the Golden Knights, whose incredible expansion season finally ended in the desert.
So did the Capitals’ agonizing wait for their first championship since the franchise’s debut in 1974. After so many years of postseason flops and crushing disappointment, these Capitals won their fourth consecutive closeout game with a tenacious third-period comeback.
Captain Alex Ovechkin, who scored an early power-play goal and was the playoff MVP, and his teammates are Washington’s first championship hockey team – and the city’s first champion in a major pro sport since the Redskins won the Super Bowl in early 1992.
After Vegas won the opener, the Capitals capped their four-game surge by rallying from a third-period deficit in Game 5, banishing so many years of playoff failure with big goals and tenacious play across their lineup. Ovechkin scored his franchise-record 15th goal of the postseason in a cathartic victory for the Capitals, who had never been this close to the NHL’s ultimate prize.
Braden Holtby made 28 saves in Game 5, outplaying three-time Stanley Cup champion Marc-Andre Fleury in the other net one final time.
The Caps couldn’t win a title without a little weirdness, however: The game clock stopped working on the T-Mobile Arena scoreboards during the final minutes, and the Capitals angrily protested while they played on. Vegas never got close to a tying goal.
Reilly Smith scored a go-ahead goal late in the second period for the Golden Knights, who won seven of their first eight home playoff games before dropping the last two.
Nate Schmidt and David Perron also scored in the second period, but Fleury’s 29 saves included a stopped puck that dropped underneath him where Eller swept it home for the Cup-winning goal.
Washington’s Cup-clinching win was its 10th on the road in this postseason, tying the NHL playoff record and illustrating the superior toughness of this team.
While past editions of the Caps created their team’s reputation for postseason flops in part by losing five playoff series in which they had three of the first four games, Ovechkin’s latest group promptly closed out all four of its series this year on the very first try.
And the remarkable Golden Knights hadn’t lost four consecutive games in their entire inaugural season before the Caps rolled them.
The Capitals had thousands of red-clad fans in the Vegas crowd and a building full of supporters watching back home along with countless thousands outside in the crowded D.C. streets.
The win means Australia’s Nathan Walker has won his first Cup, though he didn’t see time on the ice during the Cup series.