By DONALD WITTKOWSKI
For his 75th birthday, Ed Donnelly received well-wishes from a 7-foot-tall, furry orange creature with googly eyes and a hyperactive personality.
Donnelly exploded in laughter when he was approached by none other than Gritty, the wildly popular Philadelphia Flyers mascot that looks like a cross between the Abominable Snowman and Beetlejuice.
“He surprised me,” Donnelly said of Gritty’s sudden appearance.
Gritty put on a high-energy performance while leading a socially distanced parade dubbed the Flyers Mobile Pep Rally that rambled through the streets of Sea Isle City on Monday evening in front of thousands of Philly hockey fans, like Donnelly.
Donnelly, who lives in Landenberg, Pa., and is a Sea Isle summer resident, said he felt like a kid again when Gritty wished him a happy birthday.
“I really do, yes,” he said.
Wearing his trademark Flyers gear, Gritty pedaled his way through Sea Isle aboard a tandem bike that included some dude riding on the back who appeared to be straight out of the “Men in Black” movies in his black suit, white shirt and dark sunglasses.
During one of the rare moments that Gritty stopped to catch his breath, Mayor Leonard Desiderio presented him with a ceremonial key to the city. Prompting screams of laughter from the crowd, Gritty waddled over to the former Sea Isle City Public School and pretended to unlock the front door using the key.
“Sea Isle is Flyers country!” Desiderio boomed over a loudspeaker amid roars from the spectators.
As the surging Flyers prepare for their playoff opener Wednesday against the Montreal Canadiens, Desiderio predicted that Philly is heading for a championship for the first time since 1975.
“We’ve got a Stanley Cup coming this year, right?” he said while exhorting the crowd.
The mobile pep rally – so-named because of the need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic – was the latest event in a long association between Sea Isle and Philly’s NHL franchise. Over the years, current and former Flyers have held mini hockey clinics and participated in other community outreach programs in the beach town.
“We’ve always had a relationship with the Flyers,” Sea Isle spokeswoman Katherine Custer said. “They do one thing or another here every year.”
The Gritty-led procession got underway at around 5:30 p.m. Fire trucks and police cars blared their sirens and flashed their lights while escorting Flyers-themed vehicles along Park Road, 48th Street, Central Avenue, 36th Street, Cini Avenue and finally back to John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
The parade route was lined with cheering crowds decked out in orange and black Flyers jerseys and other regalia. In addition to Gritty, the spectators got to see former Flyers player Bob “The Hound” Kelly, a 1975 championship team alum. Kelly, who now serves as a Flyers ambassador, has attended all of the team’s events in Sea Isle over the years, Custer said.
Standing on the sidewalk along Park Road, parade spectators Jack Scanlan, 9, his sister, Emily, 6, William Stapleton, 7, and his sister, Abigail, 5, waited eagerly for Gritty to make an appearance.
“He looks funny,” Emily said, smiling.
The Scanlan and Stapleton children are cousins. Their moms, Kelli Scanlan and Chrissy Stapleton, told the children Monday morning that they were going to the Flyers parade and would get to see Gritty.
“I was happy,” William said.
Just minutes later, Gritty rode by on his bike to the children’s delight.