During December several teams in the Elite Ice Hockey League staged a ‘Teddy Bear Toss’, something that has taken place in the leagues below the National Hockey League in North America since 1993. It’s a chance for fans to bring a cuddly toy and donate it to the teams’ charity once the home side score their first goal of the game.
I wanted to find out a little bit more about this.
It may seem a little bit strange to someone who sees it for the first time, as it did myself, but what an amazing way to show the local community that everyone cares. This feel-good factor not only shows that the local teams want to help at this time of year but also that supporters don’t have to dig deep to do so.
Don Larsen, who was head of marketing at the Kamloops Blazers, paved the way for fans to be able to donate bears, originally it was for the local paediatric ward at the Royal Inland Hospital, the fans was be poised to throw their donation on to the ice after the first Blazers goal. Brad Lukowich scored that night and over 2,500 bears were tossed on the ice at the Riverside Coliseum.
Since 1993, many teams have attempted to break the record and the fans get right behind it, with records being broken the real winners are the charities that the bears end up going too. The first team to get into the Guinness book of records was the Calgary Hitmen, who get their name from professional wrestler Bret “The Hitman” Hart being a founding owner, are owned by Calgary sports and entertainment, who also own the Calgary Flames.
In 2015, they took the teddy bear toss to another level, 28,815 bears were thrown onto the ice. This record was broken in 2018 when they managed to get 29,935 bears onto the ice.
This record was something the Western Hockey League team could be proud of, until the record was smashed by American Hockey League side, Hershey Bears. 2nd December 2018, an amazing 34,798 bears were thrown onto the ice at the Giant Center to set the new record after Riley Barber scored for the home team. The Bears went one step further in 2019 where 45,650 teddy bears travelled through the air and landed on the ice after Christian Djoos scored the first home goal of the evening causing a 40-minute delay to the game to get all the donations cleared away safely ready to donate.
From an official’s point of view, James Ions, they enjoy the break from play ‘I probably needed a rest around then’.
Ions is a linesman for the EIHL, and unlike other sports, referees get numbers as well, with the Cardiff based official currently wearing 77.
‘The actual first one was, for me, wasn't in the Elite League it was in a league that now no longer exists, it's been replaced. But it was the English Premier League so the second division in the country’ I asked about memories of his first game where the teddy bear toss happened. ‘2017/18 season in Swindon, which was really weird because it's not sort of like a bowl arena. They've only got sitting on the one side. But so half the ice was covered with teddy bears and then the other half was just as it normally is’
From just watching other videos and streams with the teddy bear toss taking place, there can be stoppages in play, this doesn’t seem to bother Ions and the other officials ‘We get involved to try and help clean up, everything is for a good cause, so I think everyone just gets involved as much as they can and play their part.’
The positives are clear to see from the experiences Ions has had at games, this year he was officiating at Cardiff Devils vs Dundee Stars, a match the devils lost 2-1 ‘it's such a good thing to do what they do with the bears. Take them to the hospitals and mostly children they cheer up. Just something that maybe sat around in your house so you can wrap in a plastic bag and throw as a celebration when your team scores, then becomes something that puts a smile on someone else's face, so I think it's fantastic what they do and the ways that as well’
This hasn’t just been an Ice Hockey event, with the more teams taking part of breaking of records, more sports have taken notice and got involved. Basketball have been the most prominent sports to get behind this on a regular basis, with the teams below the National Basketball Association taking part, much like in hockey, it’s the minors or feeder leagues. In 2014 the teams in Italy, Lega Basket Serie A, took part and it has been a feature of the festive schedule ever since, unlike hockey, this happens at half time when both teams are off the court.
You can’t forget Dutch football team, Den Haag and their supporters, playing in the Eredivisie against Feyenoord, throwing cuddly toys from the top tier of the stadium, underneath were children who were patients at Rotterdam’s Sophia Children’s hospital.
Fans and supporters bringing a feel-good factor to the local community is something that nothing else can replicate, sport is often a release from what is going on in your life and these moments may seem few and far between but matter a lot to those who are on the receiving end of the event.