Teddy Bear Toss: Behind hockey's best holiday tradition

Photo provided by San Diego Gulls.
Photo provided by San Diego Gulls.

SAN DIEGO – Through two periods of hockey, San Diego Gulls fans at the Valley View Casino Center clutched their teddy bears, prepared to launch them on the ice when the home team scored.

With every shot (and every subsequent save by Stockton Heat goaltender Jon Gillies) the 9,440 faithful jumped, yelled and cheered thinking that was the moment they could throw the bears.

Normally the Teddy Bear Toss, hockey’s hottest in-game charity event, occurs when the home team scores its first goal – but on this night that didn’t happen for the Gulls. Gillies played the role of the Grinch and stopped a barrage of rubber hurled his way to sour the festive mood.

“Jon Gillies, what are you doing? Denying the Teddy Bear Toss,” shrieked Gulls play-by-play announcer Craig Elsten.

Finally the Gulls organization couldn’t hold back their fans anymore. Midway through the final frame, the jumbotron read “It’s Teddy Bear Time” and fans took their plastic wrapped stuffed animals and tossed them on the ice without delay for over four full minutes.

After cleaning up the bears, the furry creatures went to the San Diego Regional Law Enforcement Teddy Bear Drive to benefit Rady Children’s Hospital.

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“Every one of those bears is going to have a tiny set of hands wrapped around them and a big hug,” Gulls coach Dallas Eakins said. “When you’re standing behind the bench and even though we were losing tonight I’m looking at all those bears going ‘man that’s a lot of kids that are going to be really, really happy.’ So if it stops the game for 20 minutes and if there’s 10,000 bears on the ice and we have 10,000 kids happy then so be it.”

During the holiday seasons, few promotions have the impact of the Teddy Bear Toss. Fans flock in droves to arenas to throw bears on the ice and teams also proudly post videos of tosses with numerous charities benefiting.

“I think it’s helping people and helping the kids and makes them smile during the holidays. And it’s fun here to throw things on the ice,” said Oceanside resident Jennifer Brown. “I don’t come to all the games (with my husband). I usually send his friends. This is one where I said, ‘I’m coming.’”

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Folklore says the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers started the Teddy Bear Toss on Dec. 5, 1993 against the Swift Current Broncos. Brad Lukowich scored the goal, the bears hit the ice and a phenomenon was born.

“You know what, I don’t think we knew what to expect to be honest. We knew it was going to happen. Everyone was kind of fired up to see who would get that first goal,” said Arizona Coyotes broadcaster Tyson Nash, who was a part of that Blazers team. “I think when the flood of teddy bears hit the ice, we were all like, ‘are you kidding me?’ It was literally raining down stuffed animals. It’s hard to explain but it was a sight to see for sure.”

Soon, other teams across junior and minor hockey followed and put their own spins on the toss. Fans bought in, filling up arenas to throw the bears for charity.

“We’ve just been so fortunate that our fans really embrace this game. I think part of it is the experience and it’s raining down 25,000 bears. I think the other part of it is feeling good about giving back to the community and those bears are going to where families need them,” Calgary Hitmen assistant manager for business operations Michelle Blades said. “We do encourage our fans to help us break our own record. We’re truly fortunate we get more bears than people.”

The Hitmen are considered one of hockey’s top toss teams, but didn’t see the event turn into a viral sensation until long after the first toss on Dec. 16, 1995. Borys Protsenko scored the teddy goal and fans tossed a total of 1,323 bears on the ice.

The Hitmen didn’t break the 2,000 bear mark until their fourth year, but saw a major rise in interest after. Calgary eventually started to draw in between 16,000 and 19,000 fans annually at the Saddledome and got over 20,000 bears every year from 2007-08 onward, except one – in 2009-10 when they got 16,755 donations.

“Some people are bringing in at least one if not five or 10 bears to throw,” Blades said. “We’re truly very lucky our fans embrace it so much.”

The first time the Bakersfield Condors, one of the AHL’s top teams for the toss, held their event they were unprepared for the amount of bears. So they had to load up the opposing team’s bus after the goal, whisk the bears away and then bring the bus back in time to pick up the group.

“We were like ‘oh my gosh, we have quite a sensation here on our hands,’” said team president Matt Riley.

The Condors are known as a team that comes up with some of the more outlandish promotions in hockey, but they said none of them compare to the buzz around their toss.

“Everybody enjoys it from the fans’ perspective and even the players’ perspective and all those guys – it’s kind of like playing in an outdoor game,” Riley said. “It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen very often and you kind of soak it in and enjoy it.”

In a lot of ways, the growth of the toss has come in conjunction with the internet and teams using social media platforms to promote the event. Now it has become a game of ‘can-you-top-this’ around the hockey world to see which team’s fans can throw the most bears.

“At a hockey game it’s not something that’s very common. You’re told at the start of the game that if you throw something onto the ice you might get arrested. To be able to come out and throw something onto the ice, I think the big hook is the visual spectacle of it,” said Portland Winterhawks radio voice Todd Vrooman, whose team has done their own toss since 1998. “We’ve all seen the videos of some of the biggest teddy bear tosses around the world of hockey. I think everyone wants to participate in something that has a viral type of a feel to it.”

It’s tough to quantify all the reasons why fans love the toss so much, but a small sampling of people at Valley View Casino Center revealed a couple of common themes.

First of all, hockey fans love to throw stuff on the ice.

“For me, personally it’s the joy of watching hockey and the joy of just throwing things,” said Don Tran of San Diego, while holding a 53-inch plush bear.

Said San Diego resident Geoff Haslam, who bought two bears for the occasion, “We went through it last year and had a great time. You always throw hats if there’s a hat trick, so it kind of jibes with hockey.”

Also, there’s the charitable element that seems to go with the holiday season – when tosses are held.

“My kids go to the hospital every once in a while, and it’s kind of nice to see the community giving back and allowing them to have something there to comfort them, especially when getting a shot, taking medicine or doing anything like that,” said San Diego resident Pete Rios, who brought his 9-year-old daughter to the game.

Teddy Bear Toss photo
Don Tran holds his bear before the San Diego Gulls toss.

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Soon after the bears hit the ice, a crew consisting of youth players from Poway Ice Arena cleaned them up. Eakins also ordered his players to help clean the bears off the ice – seeing this as an opportunity to build character.

They put the bears onto giant green tarps and helped guide them through a tunnel next to the rink, where the stuffed animals went to an interior room in the building.

“We’re going to be involved and we’re going to go and shovel it and do some work and show that we care about it,” Eakins said. “I just think it sends a very positive message to our fans. I think it’s a very positive outlook on our organization. And I’ve said it a million times before. Are we here to develop hockey players? Yeah. But for me, my most important thing is I want to develop good men and that’s part of being a good man right there.”

Deep inside the arena, the volunteers rounded up the bears and put them into black trash bags – all while the game was still occurring. They then took the bags of bears to a small transportation truck waiting at the loading dock.

When that truck was full of bears, they put the rest into an ambulance. And when that vehicle was full, some people had to wait with the remaining bag of bears for transportation to return.

The bears hit the ice at around 9:26 p.m. and were all mostly gone from the arena 10:30 p.m. The Gulls’ final count ended up being 16,520 total bears tossed on the ice and retrieved by volunteers and sent to charity.

Teddy bear toss
A room at Valley View Casino Center filled with bears.

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“I think this is probably the most widely consumed (promotional/charity event) because it’s so unique. It’s like, ‘what the heck? They’re throwing bears on the ice’” said Gulls president of business operations Matt Savant. “When I was in Anaheim (with the Ducks) we did some fun things with (Children’s Hospital of Orange County) up there where our players would go and we had our fans purchase kid’s club kits and our players would deliver them to the kids in the cancer ward. Those were nice feel-good stories, but this is probably the most collective promotion that I’ve been a part of.”

Could this be something that would work in the NHL? It seems like a delay of 20-30 minutes would be tough for the league and its players to swallow. Also, cleanup for 10,000 or so fans sounds easier than 18,000 fans. But it would sure be a spectacle, a guaranteed sellout and a slam-dunk charitable endeavor.

“I would (like to see it in the NHL), but logistically it’s a little bit tough,” said former NHLer Paul Gaustad who was part of past Portland tosses. “The junior rinks are little bit different size wise. There’s no third level usually, but if they could figure out a way to do it, it would be a great event and obviously for a great cause and why not try it and see if it works.”

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Josh Cooper is an editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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