Teddy Bear toss

Coco, the Hershey Bears mascot, relaxes in a pile of stuffed animals after last year's record-setting Teddy Bear Toss.

The oohs and aahs each time the puck enters the offensive zone are a hint that something important is coming. Fans are waiting for a goal. Not just any goal.

The Teddy Bear Toss has become one of minor league hockey’s holiday season traditions. At arenas across North America, stuffed animals are thrown onto the ice the moment the home team scores for the first time.

No one does it better than the Hershey Bears, the American Hockey League’s defending Calder Cup champions. They’ve taken the promotion to another level.

Hershey fanatics set a world record when they sent 67,309 plush companions floating toward the playing surface last year. They’ll have a chance to surpass that mark when Hershey takes on Lehigh Valley at Giant Center Sunday at 3 p.m.

Teddy Bear Toss

Coco the Bear carries one of the donations off the ice.

“It’s an amazing visual when all sorts of stuffed animals are flying onto the ice,” said Zack Fisch, the voice of the Bears. “It’s kind of pandemonium. All sorts of furry creatures flying down. It’s literally like a rain storm and then an avalanche.”

The stuffed animals are collected into a pile, often by players with their sticks, and carted off in order to be donated to charity.

The Teddy Bear Toss is believed to have been created by the Kamloops Blazers, a Canadian major junior team based in British Columbia, in 1993. It has since become a circled occasion on the schedule of just about every minor and junior team.

Hershey started tossing in 2001. The event has grown exponentially recently. When Fisch started broadcasting games in 2016, the Bears generated approximately 20,000 contributions. That total more than tripled in the next seven years.

“It has become this internal challenge for our fan base,” Fisch said. “We know they love to win. They expect to be No. 1 in a lot of categories, including the Teddy Bear Toss.”

Fans walk through the turnstiles with trash bags filled with stuffed animals. They watch the action unfold and load up their arms when it looks like a scoring chance is near.

Then … pandemonium.

Many spectators are too far away to reach the rink with their throws. The people sitting in the first few rows scoop up the remaining stuffies and send them to their destination.

“You’ve got to have your head on a swivel down there,” Fisch said. “You’ve got to be the guy that’s chipping in the rebounds, up and over the glass. You’re going to get pelted with all sorts of Teddy Bears.”

Teddy Bear toss

Hershey Bears players dive into a pile of stuffed animals.

The generosity of Hershey’s fans, many of whom live in Lancaster County, has actually created a logistical challenge for the Bears. It takes about 45 minutes for staff and volunteers to clear the ice and get the donations sorted and counted. The opposing team retreats to its locker room and waits for play to resume.

Scoring the Teddy Bear goal is a big deal. Every player wants to be the one to set off the celebration. Denying that goal is the mission of every opponent. The event adds excitement to the long regular season schedule.

“You see this big, burly, rough-and-tumble hockey player jump into a pile of cute, cuddly animals,” Fisch said. “It’s a cool thing to show this is bigger than a game. It really makes what we do special. It’s something our fans look forward to every year.”

Hershey’s Teddy Bear donations are distributed to more than 35 local and regional organizations. The total is boosted by the work of Gabby’s Acts of Kindness, a nonprofit founded by Gabby Kerchner, that brings thousands more stuffed animals to the cause.

All of it adds up to a mind-boggling total. The Teddy Bear record was 28,815, set by the Calgary Hitmen in 2015, before the Bears broke it three years later. Hershey’s total keeps climbing. There are more donations and more smiles every time.

How many stuffies will the fans pile up Sunday? That’s to be determined. No matter how high the record climbs, this is a one-of-a-kind spectacle.

“It’s truly a sight to be seen,” Fisch said. “The video of it is awesome and it captures people’s attention. But you really have to be there to experience it. It’s like none other.”

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