HERSHEY, Pa. – Hershey, Pennsylvania may be known as The Sweetest Place on Earth, dominated by chocolate and the iconic Hersheypark, whose roller coasters and stadium events regularly headline the scene and tourist attractions, but the Hershey Bears and their fans have possibly turned it into the teddy bear capital of the world. Bears fans have been steadily topping their own records of stuffed animals tossed at hockey games for twenty years and eclipsed the stadium capacity’s worth of thrown plush items more than fourfold. The record to beat for Bears fans is 45,650, the mark set the last time the event was held properly back in 2019 when Christian Djoos lit the lamp and sent the stuffed toys flying.
The event sees great exposure for the Bears and the AHL, as clips of the event go viral around the world and have even gotten the event showcased on ESPN in recent years.
Hershey Bears fans took part in the Teddy Bear Toss during tonight’s game 🐻
They threw 45,650 stuffed animals to donate to local charities — a new record 🙌
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 2, 2019
The team’s numbers have steadily grown from a small figure to suddenly competing for the crown amongst minor and junior hockey teams with venues at times nearly double of Giant Center’s 10,500 capacity. Hershey slowly crept up and eventually stole the mark from the Calgary Hitmen of the WHL, stealing the bragging rights with just under 30,000 stuffed toys thrown. The Hitmen and the Bears went back and forth with a bit of a friendly rivalry of generosity amongst their fan bases, with current Hershey forward Beck Malenstyn seeing both sides of the rivalry. In his third year with the Bears, Malenstyn played 180 games for the Hitmen in his WHL career before making the leap to full-time professional ranks.
“It came up that the Hershey Bears were going to challenge the Calgary Hitmen for the record,” Malenstyn told ESPN for a video on the 2019 event. “I was like, ‘there’s no chance, I’ve been in that rink, there’s no way you can emulate that many bears.'”
This season has a little bit of extra anticipation around it, as the Bears are holding the event in its natural state for the first time since that record-setting 2019 event that’s now over two years old. With all the uncertainty surrounding the 2020-21 AHL season and the impacts that the global pandemic had on the hockey world, the team elected to go a different route to bring the event, even without a hockey game to bring everyone together. The Bears had been away from the ice for nearly ten months when the team hosted a drive-thru version of the Teddy Bear Toss, and even in the most difficult of times, the fans still delivered with 31,381 plush item donations along with a food drive. The mark was still good for third all-time in total teddy bears collected and ending up helping to usher in the new season in some ways as the Bears began play shortly after.
Much like scoring the goal on the ice that sends the teddy bears soaring, it’s a team effort amongst Bears fans to achieve such success. Fans bring in multiple bags of stuffed items, place plush items in their seats, and local organizations collect donations in advance of the big day. One such organization is Gabby’s Acts of Kindness, which collected over 10,000 stuffed items alone in 2019, as well as local schools and other similar groups. The charitable efforts don’t stop at plush items, either, as the Sweigart Family Foundation has regularly donated one dollar per plush item each season as well as the GIANT Company, who made a donation of $20,000 to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the event. The teddy bears are donated to more than 25 local organizations after the event as part of the Hershey Bears Cares initiative, where players and staff often go to deliver the items personally.
To date, the Bears have an all-time record of 13-2-0-2 as well as two ties in Teddy Bear Toss games, and recent contests have featured some memorable moments. 2017’s game had the toss goal as the first of two tallies for Liam O’Brien, which helped the Bears spark a comeback that was capped in overtime with a Chris Bourque game-winner. The following year, the Bears downed the Binghamton Devils by a 6-3 count in an important turnaround win that season, and 2019 saw Brett Leason score his first AHL goal in overtime to help the Bears down the Hartford Wolf Pack.
— E60 (@E60) February 20, 2020
This season’s opponent for the toss is those same Hartford Wolf Pack, with the two teams locked up in another meaningful contest outside of trying to break the plush record. The Bears and Wolf Pack are currently vying for positioning in a packed Atlantic Division, and the top two spots mean more than ever in a new AHL playoff format that sees those two teams earn byes in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs. The toss is a bit later than usual for the Bears, who typically hold the event in early December as a sign of the incoming Christmas season, but the added standings drama between the two foes adds another layer of intrigue. With only five more matchups between the two teams, it’s important to get as many head-to-head points as possible, and fans will surely get more than their money’s worth in a pair of games between the two at Giant Center.
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