Thousands of Philadelphia Flyers fans packed Wells Fargo Center for the first in-person Carnival since 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Carnival is the largest single-day charity event among the North American professional sports teams, with all proceeds raised from the event going to Flyers Charities.
"This event is the foundation of who we are as an organization," Flyers Charities executive director Cindy Stutman said. "It personifies our commitment to the community. It's the 44th time we've done it, and really from A to Z, the whole organization is involved: the players, hockey ops, the business side, fans. It's a great celebration and opportunity for us all to come together."
Among the offerings were a 60-foot tall Ferris wheel, a carousel, a dunk tank and typical carnival midway games like Skee-Ball on the arena floor; a chance to buy raffle tickets to win player-personalized gift baskets; an art gallery themed around mascot Gritty; a display of Flyers goalie masks through the years; and a chance to bid on autographed sticks from Flyers players and NHL stars like Toronto Maple Leafs forward Auston Matthews, Washington Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin, New Jersey Devils forward Jack Hughes and Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon, and much more.
There were opportunities to tour the Flyers locker room, shoot at a goalie on the ice, and get pictures with current Flyers and Flyers alums like Scott Hartnell, Kimmo Timonen and Bill Barber.
There also was a booth dedicated to Hockey and Hounds, a charity run by Flyers coach John Tortorella and his wife, Christine.
Fans could buy tickets for a photo with Tortorella and rescue dogs from the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (PSCPA) and Paws Humane Society, an animal shelter and rescue group.
"It's a passion of ours, my family and I," Tortorella said. "We're thrilled just to join in here and the biggest thing for us is we just want to bring just some thoughts to it. I'm so fortunate, not me personally, but just the platform that I do have now as a coach is to be able to talk about this and just to try to give some insight as far as really what's going on with animal welfare. Not just dogs, just all animals, of how much need there is out there as far as these animals that are being neglected, abused, no homes, lost, feral. There's so many things that we can do to try to help this."
Gillian Kocher, PSPCA director of public relations, said it's the first time the group has been part of the Carnival. But with Tortorella as a partner, it was easy for them to bring a few dogs to the event for photos and potential adoptions.
"It's been so beneficial for us," Kocher said of the group's relationship with Tortorella. "We are always on the lookout for ways to spread our mission and highlight animals that are in our care. ... I think it's helped in so many ways. When we feature a dog and he talks about it on the radio (Tortorella has a weekly Hockey and Hounds show on 97.5 The Fanatic), that dog very often gets scooped up pretty quickly, which is pretty amazing."
The day began with a sold-out "Breakfast with Gritty," where the mascot entertained children and their families with a pancake breakfast, then signed autographs and took pictures.
Seven-year-old Scarlett, who was at the Carnival with her aunt, Nancy Acker, was excited to have Gritty autograph her drawing of the mascot.
"I'm going to put it right next to my bed," Scarlett said.
Christina Finley and her husband, Keith, arrived early from Pompton Lakes, New Jersey, for the breakfast with their daughter Payton, 6, and son JJ, 4. Christina said she and Keith attended the Carnival in the past but the additions after three years away have made a fun event even better.
"We're just excited to go have some carnival fun now, play some games while dad is getting his stuff signed," she said.
As excited as the fans were, the players were just as happy to be back at an event they value as much as the fans do.
"It's always nice interacting with the fans," said forward Sean Couturier, the longest-tenured member of the roster. "We don't get the chance to really do that during the season like we do here, to be face to face with people and actually talk to them. It's nice and I think it's for a great cause too, so it's a lot of fun."
Tony DeAngelo, who grew up in Sewell, New Jersey, about 20 miles south of Philadelphia, attended the Carnival as a youngster. Now in his first season with the Flyers, the defenseman was happy to give the next generation some memorable experiences.
"That's been one of the coolest parts about this year, the stuff that I did as a kid now being on the opposite side of it, being able to do it for kids or fans or whatever the case might be," he said. "And the Flyers Carnival is probably the biggest of all those as far as interacting with the fans, so it'll be pretty cool for us."
There were several other Flyers experiencing the Carnival for the first time. Among them was Kieffer Bellows, in his first season with Philadelphia after being claimed on waivers from the New York Islanders on Oct. 27.
In addition to posing for photos and signing autographs, he and forward Tanner Laczynski spent time playing miniature golf with fans.
"When I first showed up to Philadelphia [the Carnival] was one of the first things that the organization, the fans and the guys talked about," Bellows said. "Once I learned more information about it, I was excited. It's always a nice time to get to interact with fans and be a part of something bigger than just sports. I think it's good that we're here to help give back and for a good cause."