New York SASH hosts 17th annual Teddy Bear Toss in Utica

Members of the Utica College mens ice hockey team during the 17th annual New York SASH Teddy Bear Toss.

Jeff Pexton

Members of the Utica College men’s ice hockey team during the 17th annual New York SASH Teddy Bear Toss.

Emily Joss, Sports Editor

The Utica College men’s ice hockey team, in conjunction with local company New York SASH, hosted the 17th annual Teddy Bear Toss during their home game against King’s College on Saturday, Dec. 4. 

The No.3 Pioneers went on to defeat the King’s College Monarchs 8-0, in their third shutout of both the season and Teddy Bear Toss history to improve their overall record to 9-2 this season.

Although every game is crucial to the Pioneers this year, as they strive to maintain such a high national ranking, this game had far less to do with the final score and rather, centered it’s focus around the Teddy Bear Toss and the thousands of kids in the local area that will find joy this holiday season thanks to this tradition. 

Just over 16 years ago, Pioneers’ head coach Gary Heenan was out recruiting in North Bay, Ontario when he found a team participating in their own teddy bear toss. He quickly knew that such an event had to be brought back to the Utica area. 

Back home, the event not only stuck, but thrived. In the first couple years, 400-500 stuffed animals were tossed onto the ice following the first goal, but in the 17 years since, more than 50,000 stuffed animals have reached the ice and arms of local children. 

Last year, the tradition looked a little different as the Teddy Bear Toss had to leave the arena and hit the road during the 2020 season. Nonetheless, 3,324 stuffed animals were collected across their four pop-up locations. 

The last time the Pioneers played the Teddy Bear Toss in front of a crowd was in 2019, when they defeated SUNY Morrisville 4-1. During that game, more than 4,000 stuffed toys flew from the stands. Being back in the building this year, the fans were ready to respond in a big way.

In front of a sold out crowd for 10 consecutive years, thousands of teddy bears were collected last weekend. The final number tallied was 3,745, according to New York SASH.

“There have been plenty of college teams trying to emulate this, but nobody does it like the city of Utica,” Heenan said in an interview with Jeffrey Kopek on WPNR 90.7 FM. 

That may be true, but the event has inspired teams all over the country with an abundance of other collegiate and even professional teams creating their own versions of the tradition. The Pioneers’ Teddy Bear Toss has become so large, in fact, that the 2018 game was featured on the T.V. Show “Inside Edition.”

“We’re thrilled to have it, we’re thrilled to put a smile on some little kids faces and we’re happy to do our small part in that,” Heenan said.

The men on the ice gain the recognition for turning the game into a toy drive every year. Senior forward Eric Holland found the back of the net for this year’s New York SASH Teddy Bear Toss goal, in front of his parents who came from Ontario to see the game. Heenan admits that none of it could be done without New York SASH and its owner Scot Hayes. 

“Scot and his team handle all the logistics, so when those teddy bears fly, they get about 150 people jumping on that ice to get that cleaned up in minutes,” Heenan said in the same interview with Kopek. “Then Scot’s team takes those stuffed animals and distributes them to a number of different charities in the area.”

These charities include Toys for Tots and Operation Sunshine in the local Utica area. 

Throughout the course of the history of the Teddy Bear Toss, the Pioneers have scored a goal in all but one game. Back in 2014, the Pioneers were defeated by future national champion Trinity College. When this happened, the stuffed animals still reached the ice following the conclusion of the game.

Circumstances like that, however, are few and far between as the Pioneers typically dominate this game. The team’s overall Teddy Bear Toss record stands at 13-2-1 and not to mention, they have regularly scored the Teddy Bear Toss goal less than five minutes into the game. 

Our fans are the best in Division 3 and some of the best in all of college hockey,” Heenan said. “I love that our fans are passionate about this tradition.”