Send in the Bears

Published by Michael Keeley, Maine Mariners Media Relations and Broadcast Manager

It has become a minor league hockey tradition. Around holiday time each year, hometown fans around the globe sit on the edge of their seats, teddy bears in hand, anxiously anticipating that first goal. When it finally comes, the flying fur commences. The home team helps with cleanup, the visiting goalie dejectedly skates to the bench, and the counting begins. It's a spectacle that never gets old, no matter how many times you see it. And on Saturday, November 24th, the first one in Maine Mariners history was a success.

The over-sized teddy bear has become a Teddy Bear Toss staple.

It's hard to overshadow the Teddy Bear Toss event, but this game turned out to be an exception. The Mariners rallied from three goals down with less than fourteen minutes remaining in the third on the back of Ty Ronning's five point period, to defeat the Manchester Monarchs, 6-4. It was Riley Bourbonnais' second period goal to tie the game at one, that sent the bears flying. Bourbonnais was playing in his first game in over a month after suffering a knee injury in just the fourth game of the season. He led a two-on-one rush up the right wing and slid a shot low glove side to trigger the toss.

"The teddy bear event is an amazing experience and I'm fortunate enough to have scored the goal," Bourbonnais said. "I'm glad we were able to get the win for the fans."

Bourbonnais' goal didn't come until the 10:54 mark of the second period - more than halfway through regulation time. It's well before then that front office staffs start to get a little nervous about the worst-case scenario: a Teddy Bear Toss Shutout. Mariners V.P. of business operations Adam Goldberg says he's been apart of two of them, but it was head coach Riley Armstrong who had perhaps the best story.

Legend has it that the Silvertips put off the Teddy Bear Toss for a few years following the hi-jinx of their first attempt. Coach Armstrong was second on that Everett team in scoring that season, and despite scoring over 100 professional goals (and many more counting leagues outside North America), he never put in the sacred teddy bear tally. So on Saturday night, he lived vicariously through the other Riley.

Riley Bourbonnais will forever hold the milestone of "first Teddy Bear Goal in Mariners history."

Where did the Teddy Bear Toss originate? 'According to Wikipedia' (always a dangerous phrase), it was the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL, some ten years before Coach Armstrong's teddy bear shutout, that are credited with starting the tradition on December 5th, 1993 (although it appears that the true origin is still under dispute). Brad Lukowich, eventual two-time Stanley Cup champion scored the first ever credited teddy bear goal. From there, the Teddy Bear Toss spread like wildfire, through the rest of the CHL and rapidly up through minor league professional hockey. It's still in Juniors, however, where the world record for bears collected is held.

Ty Ronning thinking "you know what else would be cool on this ice? Hats."

The Calgary Hitmen, who play in the WHL as well, are responsible for the most viral of teddy bear toss videos circulating the internet over the last decade or so. Their collection of 28,815 stuffed animals on December 6th, 2015 is the standing record. At the pro level, the Hershey Bears of the AHL appropriately lead the way, coming up about 3,000 bears short of the Hitmen in December of last year.

The Hitmen drive pick up trucks onto the ice to collect teddy bears in such volume, but the Mariners cleanup wasn't quite as sophisticated. While the 1,153 bears collected might pale in comparison to Calgary or Hershey, Mariners fans came through for Toys for Tots and local children's charities and created a cleanup that required a lot of help.

Cleanup was a full team effort.

Mariners promo staff, game ops, front office, arena staff, and players all contributed to the clean up effort. With trash bags and bins and the toss-a-tomato collecting rope, the game was ready to resume in just a few minutes. What makes the Teddy Bear Toss so dramatic is also what makes it stressful for the game night staff: you know it's coming, you just don't know when.

Watch out for flying bears.

And what happens on those nights when it's just not meant to be? Well, usually the toss happens when the final buzzer sounds - a far less festive version of the event, and a much more depressing cleanup. At the core of the Teddy Bear Toss though, no matter the timing or the collection size, is the spirit of holiday giving. Maine's Marines Toys for Tots and other local children's charities will be sure that 1,153 children have a holiday that is just a little bit happier thanks to the generosity of Mariners fans.

Who's the bigger teddy bear?