The San Diego Gulls were stressed as they entered the third period of their American Hockey League game on Dec. 17, trailing the Stockton Heat 3-0. The Gulls didn't just need a goal to inspire a late-game comeback. They also needed a goal to inspire the almost 10,000 fans in attendance to shower the ice with the 16,000 teddy bears they brought with them to Valley View Casino Center.
Per teddy-bear toss tradition, the home team typically needs a goal to cue fans to throw down the toys, which are later donated to local charities. But with time running out, Gulls staff anxiously wondered how to get those bears on the ice.
"I'll be honest, there were some nervous moments in the third," said Matt Savant, the Gulls' president of business operations.
In the event of a shutout, Savant and his crew decided that arena game ops would instruct fans to throw their teddy bears during the first television timeout of the third period. The Gulls were still scoreless when that moment arrived, but there was a problem.
"Right before the TV timeout, we actually received a power play," said Savant. "Once we realize there is a penalty, we say, 'Stop.' We're not going to do it here because we want the guys to go through the power play, during which there is a higher likelihood that we will score and the process would happen naturally."
This is what sometimes happens behind the scenes on teddy-bear toss night, hockey's most beloved holiday spectacle.
It's a surreal scene that has become increasingly common in pro and minor hockey: stuffed animals of all shapes and sizes hurtling toward the ice in waves. With the help of dozens of arena volunteers, not to mention a few players lingering on the ice, the cleanup typically takes 20 minutes. But no one in attendance ever complains about the extended interruption.
"People get to come and do something really fun and unique and give back to charity at the same time," said Melissa Blades, the manager of business operations for the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. "Around Christmastime, everyone is looking for a way to give back to those who need it. We just provide a fun way to do that and watch the bears rain down."
Blades has seen more than a few bears rain down. During Calgary's 2015 toss, 19,289 fans tossed 28,815 bears onto the ice, which still stands as the team's -- and possibly the game's -- teddy-bear toss record.
One place you won't see the teddy-bear toss is in the NHL, which officially discourages the tossing of any items on the ice.
"Player safety is an obvious reason, but so is fan safety," said an NHL spokesman via email. "At NHL arenas, a high percentage of anything thrown from the stands would hit other fans."
Even without NHL participation, the phenomenon has only grown since first being introduced in the early-1990s. Amateur and pro clubs around the world typically partner with a variety of charities, which distribute the toys the following day or shortly thereafter. In many cases, players visit area children's hospitals to hand out the bears themselves.
"We do a private visit to the hospital to see the kids and seniors. You'd be amazed what the experience is like for the young players, but also for the people," said Stu MacGregor, the vice president and general manager of the WHL's Kamloops Blazers. "I think it's a good thing for our players because they see the difficulties that others are experiencing. The whole thing has developed into something special."
Before serving as an NHL scout for 17 years, MacGregor started out with the Blazers and then returned to take over the team in 2015. It was during his first tenure in Kamloops that the Blazers are believed to have introduced the teddy-bear toss to the world.
The club's first teddy-bear toss, and one of the first recorded in hockey history, took place on Dec. 5, 1993. It was a goal by Brad Lukowich -- assisted by Shane Doan and Darcy Tucker -- that prompted fans to throw a few hundred bears onto the ice.
The tosses have certainly created several indelible moments since then. On Dec. 4, Skyler McKenzie of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks got things started early with a goal just 2:31 into the game and then inspired a shower of hats onto the ice when he completed the hat trick later that night. In 2007, another Winterhawks forward, Chris Francis, got the bears flying with an early goal against the Chilliwack Bruins -- only to have the goal disallowed. The WHL's Everett Silvertips were shut out in the first teddy-bear toss they hosted, which convinced the team to abandon the promotion for a few years.
"Inevitably you'll see some young kids working real hard to get their bears up and over the glass. It can be difficult to make that throw," said Todd Vrooman, Portland's media relations and broadcast manager. "You'll see an entire section of fans go nuts when they finally clear the bear over the glass."
The assumption has long been that this whimsical promotion originated in Kamloops. But that's not the case, according to Bob Brown, the current Edmonton Oilers scout who served as the Blazers' GM for 10 seasons.
"I think it was Regina," said Brown. "It wasn't us. I know that."
Inquiries about the Regina Pats -- including to three longtime beat writers, a local team historian and a previous owner -- yielded a different response. Their general consensus was that the originator of the teddy bear toss was ... the Kamloops Blazers.
The birth of the teddy bear toss might be in dispute, but there was little mystery in the end for the Gulls.
With the game's outcome -- and the fate of thousands of teddy bears -- hanging in the balance, the Gulls couldn't cash in on their third-period power play against Stockton. At the next TV timeout, the arena scoreboard instructed fans in attendance to let the fur fly.
The Gulls rewarded those who stuck around by breaking the shutout with 20 seconds left in a game they eventually lost 3-1. But even in a divisional defeat, the teddy-bear toss provided an indelible moment and more than a little anxiety for Gulls staff.
"It was great, and we collected over 16,000 bears, and our fans were into it," said Savant. "But there were some anxious moments leading up to it."