The cars drove up one by one on a December afternoon, around the traffic circle in front of a ballpark in Erie, Pa., a scene that was captured by local news. Toy bags big and small were unloaded by the bunches as the familiar shapes started to pile up on the sidewalk — teddy bears.
Here's how this scene would play out in normal times, before the coronavirus pandemic: Locals would pack Erie Insurance Arena, home of the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, on a game night. When the Otters scored their first goal, it would trigger a wave of teddy bears, thrown from the fans onto the ice. The teddy bear toss, which has been going on in Erie for over a decade, would bring in loads of toys for the Salvation Army. Last year, the Otters collected 1,434 stuffed animals. The year before that, 1,100.
But this year, the annual tradition — a popular event common at minor league and junior hockey games across North America — couldn't take place as it had in the past. This year, the small-town hockey tradition, a perfect mix of chaos and childlike awe, was modified.
With the OHL season delayed, the Otters decided to team up with two other local minor league teams for a contactless toss and toy collection the Saturday before Christmas. The Otters; the Erie SeaWolves, a minor league affiliate of the Detroit Tigers; and the Erie BayHawks, a G League affiliate of the New Orleans Pelicans, wanted to keep the effort going during a time when many are away from family and friends as the pandemic worsens.
"We have neighbors that are hurting and that is because they lost their job, because of closures, whether it is because they just can't have a sense of normalcy because they are away from family or their annual Christmas traditions," SeaWolves President Greg Coleman said. "There are those right now who need that tradition and need that sense of community, and for us I think we need it as much as anybody else."
The teams collected nearly 900 toys from the event, which were in turn given to the Salvation Army to be distributed for the holidays. The event also brought in more than $250 in donations.
"Might sound a little corny, but we missed people and miss our fans and that social aspect of it," said Matt Bresee, president of the BayHawks. "Again, small town, those fans, those season-ticket holders and corporate partners that we've had relationships for years ... it wears on us and wears on everybody as far as lacking human interaction."
The contactless teddy bear toss has been done in a few other minor league cities this season, with more to follow. The Hershey Bears, the Washington Capitals' American Hockey League affiliate in Pennsylvania, has scheduled their drive-through teddy bear toss and food drive for Jan. 23. The Bears put on one of the biggest teddy bear toss events each year, setting the world record last year for teddy bears donated at a teddy bear toss event: 45,650.
In Erie, the teddy bear toss game has been a constant for the past 13 years.
"Our community is a very generous community, but it also has quite a bit of poverty," said Bernie Myers, who has worked at the Salvation Army of Erie since 2008. "It is important. We are not the only organization that is out there helping by any means, but it certainly enables us to do what we do a little better."
Erie is known for its snowy winter and its summer attractions that bring tourists year-round. Coleman described Erie as a "big small town." The three minor league sports teams are also part of the community's foundation. Whenever someone on the SeaWolves hits a home run to left field, it hits against — or goes over — Erie Insurance Arena. With steady attendance levels for all three teams, they are seen as a staple for locals and a fun attraction for visiting tourists.
"We play an important role in the community as a gathering place," Coleman said, "whether that is a place where organizations can raise money, whether it is where businesses can recognize their employees, to a place where people can reconnect with folks."
The Salvation Army has been the main beneficiary of the Otters' teddy bear toss. In the previous 12 years, when the event was held in person, the Otters averaged 3,819 teddy bears collected, with the donations ranging from Beanie Babies to five- or six-foot-tall teddy bears. Typically, these teddy bears and other toys collected ahead of the holiday season would be laid out on the floor of the organization's small gymnasium floor, where families could go and take their pick.
Parents would usually come to the gym by themselves, but during the times when they had to bring their kids, volunteers and Salvation Army workers got to see their impact firsthand.
"You just see the child's eyes go as big as they can, the smile goes as wide as it can as that [large teddy bear] is being loaded into the car," Myers said. " ... It's just so heartwarming to see it, especially the children."
But this year, with the coronavirus limiting in-person interactions, the Salvation Army must pick out, sort, bag and distribute all donations through contactless outdoor pickup in their parking lot. It has required a bit more planning and diligence. But for the volunteers, it's all about finding any way to give back.
"It's just a highlight of our Christmas season and it [was] a little different this year, but we are hopeful it is going to help us help a lot of kids," Myers said.
Like a lot of organizations in 2020, the Salvation Army of Erie has been hit hard by the pandemic. They've had fewer hands to help this holiday season because many of their volunteers are older, which makes them higher risk. This December, the teddy bear toss has enabled them to give more during a time when donations are leaner.
The teams involved in the event were just happy to give back. Since the pandemic hit, all admitted that times were — and still are — challenging. But Saturday, they could see their fans again, as well as the excitement on their faces as they threw donations into a goal full of toys on the sidewalk.
"Our whole philosophy is if we do right by the community, they will do right by us, and the community of Erie has certainly proven that," Coleman said. "We all want the best for our community, and we believe in it strongly."