Mon Dec 05 10:16am EST
The Teddy Bear Toss is the tradition that keeps on giving. Perhaps some day we will be blasé about the sight of thousands of stuffed animals being hurled from the stands on to the ice after the home team scores its first goal, but not today.
It is a reflection of the warmth and generosity of spirit that's in many junior hockey fans. The OHL's Kitchener Rangers are thought to have originated the custom, but the WHL's Calgary Hitmen have taken it up a notch over the past few years. Like the fictional Gene Frenkel, they've really explored the space of playing in a NHL arena, the Scotiabank Saddledome, realizing a simple equation that more seats to sell = more fans = more bears.
On Sunday, 25,303 stuffed animals hit the ice in Calgary when Hitmen winger Calder Brooks, 17, scored just his second goal of the season in the second period. The goaltender for the Medicine Hat Tigers was none other than Tyler Bunz, an Edmonton Oilers prospect who is headed to Canada's national junior team selection camp this weekend. Hopefully for Bunz, teddy bears aren't a metaphor for having to face the Russian bear at the world junior championship in about four weeks' time.
It's become such task that many teams have the herding of the bears down to a finely tuned operation. As soon as the goal light goes on, arena staff and volunteers begin sifting the toys into piles. Players from the home teams, in this case the Hitmen with their special Santa jerseys with snow-capped numerals, pitch in. Sometimes the visiting players do as well, but only if the clean-up is taking too long.
Most major junior hockey teams collect 4,000 to 5,000 stuffed animals. The Hitmen haul this weekend was just shy of their all-time mark of 26,219 set in 2007.
It's become such a staple of junior and minor pro hockey that ESPN's Page 2 even showed a team from the second-highest rung of junior hockey some love, highlighting the Alberta Junior Hockey League's Fort McMurray Oil Barons. Kudos to Oil Barons play-by-play announcer Tyler King for working a Simpsons reference into his call ("and here come the teddy bears!!" in place of "and here come the pretzels!"). That almost excuses King for not using a non-denominational holiday greeting.
Another WHL team that routinely hits five figures on Teddy Bear Toss Night is the Portland Winterhawks. The 'Hawks collected more than 10,000 on Saturday. The cool part is that a wedding ceremony performed amid all the hubbub, as Linda Moonwood, a Portland artist, and goalie gear-wearing chiropractor Dr. Robert Murakami exchanged vows. Appropriately enough, their go-ahead was a goal by Ty Rattie.
This was the second year in a row that Rattie, who shares the WHL lead in goals, scored Portland's Teddy Bear Toss goal. Strangely enough, two OHL players, the Plymouth Whalers' Alex Aleardi and Oshawa Generals' Christian Thomas, also did the honours for the second time in succession for their teams. Now that's an obscure sports feat. And you thought you would not learn anything today.