Teddy Bear Toss endures test of time, NHL shutout

Teddy Bear Toss endures test of time, NHL shutout RMU Men's Hockey Big Bear
(Photo by Jenn Hoffman/Pucks and Recreation)

The Teddy Bear Toss that minor-league, junior and college hockey enthusiasts treasure shares some key common threads with The Nutcracker. Besides being Christmastime customs, their stories each have a happy ending despite threats via pesky muroids.

Wednesday marks 25 years since the widely accepted origin of the Teddy Bear Toss. The consensus points to the Western League’s Kamloops Blazers inviting their fans to throw donatable playthings onto the ice after the team’s first goal at a Dec. 5, 1993 game. As with all subsequent iterations, the discards become gifts for underprivileged locals.

Most lower-level promotions tend to stay synonymous with one team or league. They also rarely see action in the game’s highest ranks. In this case, the NHL can come across as a superficial Scrooge for keeping it out. Although, in fairness, a rat problem might have exacerbated the derailment of any big-time aspirations the Teddy Bear Toss may have had.

With that said, like an exceptional journeyman, it has made waves one step below The Show. In fact, no later than this year, the concept’s balance of association has shifted.

Three days before the custom’s silver anniversary, the AHL’s Hershey Bears set a new standard for this unique charitable collection. With a tally of 34,798 stuffed animals, they became the first team to break 30,000 in a single toss.

Until then, WHL territory had remained the now-global practice’s definitive region. The Calgary Hitmen held the previous record of 28,815 items, which Saddledome spectators combined for in 2015. Seven pickup trucks were required to transport the toys off the ice that night.

10 greatest Christmastime traditions in the hockey world hershey bears vs syracuse crunch

After years of domination in the major-junior Western League, the Hershey Bears are the new Teddy Bear Toss kings. (Photo by Amanda Statland/Pucks and Recreation)

That mark eclipsed the Hitmen’s previous bar of 26,919, which they raised in 2007. A provincial and divisional rival, the Lethbridge Hurricanes, had held the preceding record, albeit for two days. With that, they surpassed yet another high major-junior mark set by Calgary one year prior.

In an e-mail to Pucks and Recreation, Bears broadcaster Zack Fisch noted that the Hitmen offered Hershey their kudos. In return, he said, “The Calgary Hitmen deserve a lot of credit for all of their success over the years.”

“With that said,” he added, “they’re gunning to get the record right back and are pretty competitive about it.

“If they do, that’s not a bad thing at all. It means more kids in need across North America were helped and that fans in Hershey will just have to continue to up their game more next year, which means even more kids here happy too.”

From North America’s minor-pro, major-junior and collegiate ranks to some European circuits, the Teddy Bear Toss is tried, true and ever-growing. But it would not be a stretch to look back and wonder if it was once in peril.

Hockey’s big league brandishes what some might scorn as a big-brother attitude toward the Toss. Per ESPN’s Tal Pinchevsky in 2016, an NHL spokesman explained, “Player safety is an obvious reason, but so is fan safety. At NHL arenas, a high percentage of anything thrown from the stands would hit other fans.”

Incidentally, the Hitmen share their building with the NHL’s Flames, and usually sell it out for the Teddy Bear Toss. But outside of a player’s third goal, there is an explicit precedent against celebratory showers of merchandise. And it all began with another kind of toy in mind.

When the Teddy Bear Toss was two years old going on three, an overdone occurrence in Florida may have spoiled its hopes of trickling up to The Show. While no authorities have confirmed the connection outright, the Panthers’ “rat trick” phenomenon did lead to new restrictions.

Thrusting plastic rats onto the Miami Arena rink after Florida goals proved a one-year wonder in 1995-96. New rules, effective in 1996-97, were meant to diminish delays in the action. As with flurries of fuzz when lower-level home teams is shut out, it can only happen after the final horn.

Teddy Bear Toss endures test of time, NHL shutout Maeve Garvey Rikki Meilleur RMU

Even the ever-focused athletes have to break a smile and savor the moment when their goal triggers a Teddy Bear Toss. (Photo by Jenn Hoffman/Pucks and Recreation).

When Panthers fans brought back the “rat trick” without permission in 2016, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman reaffirmed the regulations. As the Associated Press’ Stephen Whyno reported at the time, Bettman’s league would only make allowances for hat tricks. Anything else, the commissioner told the AP Sports Editors, is “disruptive to the game” and “potentially dangerous.”

But no such misgivings have taken hold in any of the development ranks. Other than caving to the embarrassing specter of being blanked, hardly anyone who has taken up the Teddy Bear Toss has seen a reason to relinquish it. If anything, higher-profile teams just shy of The Show are coming fashionably late to the party.

While the Bears, the AHL’s longest-tenured brand, set the world record this past weekend, the Chicago Wolves conducted their first toss amidst the team’s 25th season. Their version took place during the first intermission, a la Chuck-a-Puck.

Back in the presumed Kamloops epicenter, everyone is in the seasonal spirit of sharing. CBC News marked the Teddy Bear Toss’ silver anniversary by querying current Blazers personnel.

Booster club president Kevin Rhodes told the news station, “Good things go a long way. It’s good for the organizations that benefit in the community…People want to be involved in that.”

Those whose shots cue the bear blizzard are no exception. Blazers blueliner Montana Onyebuchi is a third-year WHL stay-at-home defenseman with a mere seven career goals. But when he was an Everett Silvertip, one of those white-elk tallies happened to bring on the bears.

Of that experience, he told CBC, “It’s better than scoring any other goal I’ve ever scored, ever.”

Why wouldn’t it be? It chalked up to 8,523 assists on a happier holiday for Everett-area residents.

And no major-league misers or Miami Mouse Kings could take that away. Nor is their lack of participation or explanation thereof likely to stop another quarter-century of the Teddy Bear Toss elsewhere.

Any chance you get to help kids and throw something on the ice without getting in trouble is a great time,” Fisch said. “The hockey community is special and full of so many good people. I am not surprised to see so many communities taking part in this event.

“It’s really gained steam here, and many other places in the past several years. I hope it continues to grow. Safe to say, the world loves it.”

Al Daniel

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