By JESSE LIEBMAN
Just because the National Hockey League and its players have stopped playing, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world has stopped to wait until the labor issues have been resolved. Life goes on; some have it rougher than others.
In some cases, the people who have it roughest are children. During the winter months, it can get especially bleak for a child battling illness, poverty or any of the other problems that youth often (read: shouldn’t) have to endure. In the face of such hardship, it can be a huge comfort to receive something as seemingly innocuous as a stuffed animal. It’s a way to reassure that child that someone does in fact care about them.
My present line of work has taken me to Ontario, California, where I’m currently serving as a broadcasting intern/color commentator for the Ontario Reign. Working in a minor league environment has given me the opportunity to get a firsthand look at the Teddy Bear Toss, a popular tradition that dominates the minor league and junior hockey landscapes.
The event is truly a sight to behold. After the home team scores its first goal, the fans in attendance litter the rink with an assortment of teddy bears and other stuffed animals, which are then collected and distributed to kids via local hospitals and charities that have partnered with the team. In some instances, players will personally hand-deliver the toys, a gesture sure to brighten anyone’s day.
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of catching a bird’s-eye view of the Teddy Bear Toss put on by Ontario during a weekend game against the Idaho Steelheads. In front of an announced crowd of 7,586, it was Colton Yellow Horn — a diminutive but spirited winger who has quickly become a fan favorite in his first season with the team — who put the Reign on the board at the 15:29 mark of the first period, and set off an avalanche of stuffed animals that littered the ice at Citizens Business Bank Arena.
The arena crew and front office staff did a tremendous job of collecting the stuffed animals — even backup goaltender J.F. Berube got in on the action — while the plush toys continued to rain down. And although Ontario would ultimately go on to lose to the Steelheads that night, the final score was secondary to the participation of the fans in what has become a community staple in ECHL arenas.
While the Teddy Bear Toss started initially in the Canadian Hockey League, the spectacle has spread across leagues and taken a life of its own over the years, with many teams receiving national press coverage for putting on the event.
Naturally, plenty of teams have attempted to top each other and set the record for most stuffed animals collected during these games. Presently, the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen own the current record of 26,919, set in a match during the 2007-08 season.
Interestingly, while the Hitmen are not the anchor tenants of the Scotiabank Saddledome (they share the venue with the Calgary Flames) and they have averaged slightly under 9,000 fans per game over the previous five seasons, the boxscore from that record-setting game reveals that the crowd totaled over 17,000, an attendance worthy of an NHL match.
To wit: why don’t NHL teams hold Teddy Bear Tosses?
The obvious reason is the delay brought about by the mammoth cleanup effort required to remove the toys from the rink, along with the potential interruption to gameflow and the inherent safety risk.
Most junior and minor league venues aren’t the size of the home of the Flames and Hitmen, and often only feature one bowl for seating. Imagine the logistics that would be required to ensure that 18,200 fans at Madison Square Garden would be able to make their contribution in a safe and orderly fashion.
NHL head coaches can also be a notoriously prickly bunch, so it’s understandable why they may take issue with the lengthy interruption that ensues once the toys start making their way over the glass.
Imagine finding your team in a two-to-nothing hole midway through the third period and seeing any momentum that would ordinarily be gained from breaking the shutout instead be squashed because of a 15 minute break in the action. Suddenly those two points in the standings are frittered away, and who’s to say those points won’t matter? At the end of the season, those two points could mean all the difference between golfing in April or a deep playoff run.
The reality though is that if each of the NHL’s 30 teams attempted to put on a Teddy Bear Toss in a single season, that would amount to less than three percent of the league’s full slate of regular season games.
There’s also an implicit financial benefit for teams and their sponsors: clubs would be able to benefit from the delay by running more advertisements, not to mention the fact that it would give the league the opportunity to draw attention to all of the different causes and public services the league has aligned with? The NFL has Play60, the NBA has NBA Cares, and yet I cannot think of an instance in the past that the NHL showcased any of its fan-based initiatives or charities during a network broadcast; if they have, they clearly haven’t done a good job of it.
At the end of the day though, there can be no denying the enormous outpouring of support and approval that NHL clubs would receive for attempting such an endeavor. Aside from featuring the highest-caliber ice hockey in the world, the NHL is first and foremost an entertainment venture. What could be more entertaining than giving fans a direct conduit to get involved?
For a league that is in desperate need of establishing goodwill with its fanbase once the lockout is resolved, there is really no better way for owners, players and fans to bury the hatchet and do some real good.