Teddy Bear Toss: Attending a grand minor-league hockey tradition

Toyota Arena Ontario Teddy Bear Toss

Of all the promotional activities and gimmicks throughout minor-league sports, the Teddy Bear Toss game that many hockey teams hold each season might be one of the most enjoyable.

After all, it’s for a good cause — toys are donated to needy children during the holiday season. It’s interactive — you’re actually encouraged to throw things onto the playing surface! And it makes for great visuals, as we’ll explore in depth.

Though I live in the Los Angeles area, less than 10 miles from the nearest NHL home arena (Staples Center, which I visit often as a Kings season-ticket member), I have the opportunity to attend a Teddy Bear Toss each season. The Kings’ top minor-league affiliate, the Ontario Reign of the American Hockey League, plays just 40 miles away.

This year, my calendar finally aligned with theirs. With Christmas just 11 days away, I brought Little Fan with me to the Reign’s home building, Toyota Arena, ready to chuck a few stuffed animals.

Origins of the Teddy Bear Toss

As legend has it, the promotion began in 1993 with the Kamloops Blazers of the junior-level Western Hockey League, and the reason for doing it then is the same as now: Fans “donate” stuffed animals by throwing them onto the ice. The home team then takes them to local children’s hospitals or distributes them to children’s charities.

From those beginnings, the Teddy Bear Toss has grown to the point where nearly all minor-league hockey teams hold one each season, and thanks to social media videos of bears raining down on the ice, they’ve grown extra popular, with teams often looking to claim records for most stuffed animals collected.

It’s largely thanks to those videos that I took an interest in attending the game. Besides, I had wanted to check out the Kings’ prospects live for some time, so this offered a great excuse. And Little Fan seemed up for it too, especially after I told her that it involved throwing stuffed animals around.

By the way, NHL teams are not allowed to hold such promotions even if they wanted to, as the league discourages fans from throwing things onto the ice (hats for when a player completes a hat trick, obviously, excluded).

Waiting for the Teddy Bear Toss Ontario Reign

Preparing for the toss

We brought three stuffed animals — two small bears and a turtle. I thought that was plenty, but then we queued up to enter the arena behind a number of folks carrying trash bags — seriously, giant bags filled with teddy bears — and I started to realize that I underdid it. Get everybody attending the game to do this, and now you know how some of these teams set records of 45,000-something toys donated.

I bought seats in the first row of the upper level of the 11,000-seat Toyota Arena, thinking I’d have the best of both worlds: A vantage point where I could see everything unfold when the toss began, and a place where I could potentially still reach the ice with my stuffed bear throws. 

We got to our seats in time to catch the end of the pregame warmup, and from there it was just a matter of waiting for the Reign to score their first goal, at which time we would commence teddy bear tossing.

By the way, the home team’s first goal is traditionally when the toss occurs. But what happens if the home team gets shut out? The contingency plan depends on the team, and it ranges from simply waiting until the game ends to do it to choosing a timeout sometime late in the game even if the home team hasn’t scored yet.

Either way, I have to think it takes at least a little bit of the fun out of it, because as I would find out, the spontaneity of reacting to a goal in this manner is what makes this promotion so cool.

The moment of truth

On this night, the Reign went scoreless in the first period and went into the intermission trailing the Iowa Wild, 1-0. As the minutes passed by in the second period, I found myself getting a little anxious, as did the rest of the crowd.

Finally, with less than seven minutes remaining in the second and the Reign on the power play, Rasmus Kupari — the Kings’ first-round draft pick in 2018 — potted one to tie the game. Here’s what ensued:

Turns out I severely overestimated my arm strength, or at least my arm strength relative to the weight of the objects I was throwing. Neither of the bears I tossed reached the ice; Little Fan’s throw also landed in the lower deck. 

That’s OK, though. As I observed, the fans sitting in the first 10 rows or so had no issues with grabbing the toys tossed from above and helping them along on their journey to the ice. I can’t imagine they hurt all that much if one hits you from behind, and you get to toss objects onto the ice over and over and over again.

My favorite part of the video above, by the way, was seeing the giant, human-sized bear being guided over the glass with quite a bit of effort. If one of those hits you, then maybe it’s a bit of a different story. Anyway, after seeing how it all unfolded, I made up my mind that the next time I attend one of these games, I would try to score seats as close to the ice as possible.

This should be no surprise, but it takes a long time to clean up thousands and thousands of objects thrown onto the playing surface. By my estimation, the game was delayed about 20 minutes while everything was collected, long enough that the Wild left their bench and went into their locker room to wait it out. Meanwhile, many of the Reign players — about ⅔ of the team — happily grabbed shovels or buckets to help the arena crew pile the bears up so they could then be carted away in giant bins.

Teddy Bear Toss Ontario Reign

The Teddy Bear Toss aftermath

So if you’ve waited until deep into the game to throw your toys, and then it’s done, wouldn’t the rest of the game be a little anticlimactic? I guess it depends on how the rest of the game goes.

In this case, it was a pretty exciting one. Barely three minutes after scoring to trigger the Teddy Bear Toss, the Reign scored again to take the lead. The Wild tied the score in the third and then netted what looked to be the game winner with just 26 seconds remaining, only to see the Reign answer 12 seconds later on a goal by one of the Kings’ top prospects, Gabe Vilardi.

The Wild went on to win in a shootout, and Little Fan and I left minus a few stuffed animals but plenty satisfied with the experience. I can’t wait to go again next holiday season.

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