More than 50,000 bears fly in Hershey

JustSports Photography

📝 by Patrick Williams

The Hershey Bears had it all Saturday night ― the win, a move into first place, and a world-record 52,341 stuffed animals flying onto the ice at Giant Center.

With the American Hockey League’s senior franchise hosting its 20th annual Teddy Bear Toss Night, Axel Jonsson-Fjallby cranked a right-circle shot on the power play that beat Hartford Wolf Pack goaltender Keith Kinkaid high glove-side 6:13 into Saturday’s contest. That goal set off the stuffed-animal barrage from a sold-out crowd that lasted several minutes and then sent both teams to their dressing rooms during the ensuing 45-minute clean-up.

More than 25 local charities will receive the toys via the Hershey Bears Cares community program.

“There are going to be a lot of happy kids, and that to me [is] a little bit bigger than a hockey game,” Bears head coach Scott Allen said afterward.

Jonsson-Fjallby went on to complete a hat trick with two third-period goals that carried the Bears to a decisive 5-0 victory against their Atlantic Division rival. The win vaulted the Bears into first place in the Atlantic Division at 19-11-3-2 (.614).

“I feel like you want to be on the ice for that first goal, said Jonsson-Fjallby, who had returned to Hershey after playing for the parent Washington Capitals this past Thursday night. “I feel like everyone probably felt that.”

“The excitement in the building, the fans, the Teddy Bear Toss, I thought that [Hershey] played an excellent game,” Wolf Pack head coach Kris Knoblauch said. “We did create some scoring chances, and when we did, their goalie [Pheonix Copley] played outstanding.”

Last season the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the Bears from hosting the event, which is always one of the toughest tickets on the team’s home schedule. While the team did have a drive-by toy collection last season, the organization’s front office spent months planning the in-arena return of the event.

“It takes a village,” Bears manager of media relations and broadcasting Zack Fisch said of executing the event. “We have a ton of volunteers. We count them very quickly. It’s a very robust operation. There [are] a few people in our office on the forefront of the planning [who] make it a very smooth operation and make it the viral sensation that it is because it runs so smoothly.

“Kudos particularly to [marketing coordinator] Meredith Bair in our offices for her hard work as well as Kathy McGraw as part of our corporate communications team [with the Hershey Entertainment & Resorts Company]. [They] do a lot of the heavy lifting.”

In recent years the Bears have had a friendly back-and-forth with the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen. After the Hitmen had set a new world record, the Bears broke that mark in 2019 with 45,650 toys. Fisch served up a theory on why the event continues to gain popularity among Hershey fans.

“Our fans, they want to win,” Fisch began. “With the Calder Cups, we only hang Calder Cup banners. That’s just kind of the mantra of the fan base and what they expect. Once we set the world record, it’s kind of just steamrolled into this international phenomenon where we’re getting coverage all across the globe.

“It’s become this really impressive thing, and it’s taking more and more people to plan and execute it each and every year. But I feel like it’s gained so much steam, and we got to give our fans a lot of credit. I think it really just starts from a point of pride: ‘Hey, we’re the Hershey Bears, we should be the kings of the Teddy Bear Toss. Let’s do it.’”

Saturday night displayed a flagship franchise that has made on- and off-ice success a priority both internally and among its fan base. Hershey entered the AHL in 1938 and has become one of the premier organizations in the hockey world while also winning 11 Calder Cup championships.

“Hershey is a special place,” Fisch said, “and the history and tradition is obviously apparent when you walk in the building. You’re expected to go the extra mile, and it’s an expectation rather than a request.

“So it extends everything that the Bears do. It extends to the community and extends to Hershey itself. I mean, without getting too philosophical, you look at Milton Hershey, who built this whole town. It extends to his philosophy of going that extra mile and making it a place that is enjoyable for everyone to be a part of. He was very give-back-to-the-community. I think that translates to the residents of this area very well.

“‘Let’s not only be the world-record holder, but let’s also extend that kindness, that caring, that compassion that our town was built on, and let’s be the world record holders and put that many more smiles on kids’ faces from this event.’”