Monday, 11 December 2017

The Art of the Teddy Bear Toss

It's hard not to get the warm and fuzzies this time of year if you're a hockey fan - literally.

Each year, fans circle "Teddy Bear Toss" dates on their calendars, in anticipation of one of the greatest spectacles in sports.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Calgary, where the Hitmen garner all kinds of social media attention when the fur flies.

This year's game happened this past weekend against the Moose Jaw Warriors. Personally, it marked my fifth Teddy Bear Toss with the Hitmen and I won't lie, this city never ceases to amaze me. Even in tough economic times, thousands of bears hit the ice for children's charities.

What many people don't realize is that there is an art form to how things are done here in Calgary. Over the years, the process has been tweaked and adjusted to a point of perfection in terms of the execution. We have protocols in place for all sorts of situations and "worst-case scenarios." It really is a well-oiled machine.

We go through each of the scenarios in a pre-game meeting. How late does the goal have to be scored for us to go into an intermission? Should we do a dry-scrape of the ice after the bears are cleared off or should it be a full flood? What needs to be done in the time it takes to clear the ice? A lot of questions are answered in that pre-game meeting, even though the details have been worked out weeks in advance.

Then it's game time. We have to treat it like every other game, with promotions, PA announcements and music. The only problem is that it's not. In Calgary, while we typically bring in between 5,000-10,000 fans, the attendance for Sunday's game was 18,035. So we had to turn up the volume. One of the first whistle breaks where the ensuing faceoff in the offensive zone meant an early edition of the "Booster Juice Boost of the Game" (which is usually saved for the third period). We wanted to bring the noise and give the home team an added jolt.

We then headed over to the top of sections 106-107 to prepare for a promotion planned for the first TV timeout (which always happens following the first whistle after the ten minute mark of the period). We'll get "bumped" if there's a powerplay (no TV timeouts during powerplays), so we knew we'd be waiting a little bit after Chase Hartje took a goaltender interference penalty at 8:13. In the dying moments of that man advantage, Vladislav Yeryomenko hit paydirt and the teddy bears started raining down from the stands.

Luckily for the promotions crew, we were under cover where we were. But that meant we had to abandon the promotion and head into the Teddy Bear protocol. While the stuffies are being tossed, the players take part in photo ops and have some fun, the volunteers start cleaning up, interviews are done with the players and the sponsors, and we have the added bonus of the annual Hitmen Christmas video.

A few other items are read or played on the Energy Board, and everyone works their tail off to get the game back going. The goal is a half-hour to get the players back on the ice.

You gotta hand it to the people that make these games happen, particularly the volunteers. Not only are they rushing around to clean up all the bears, but then they remain in the bowels of the 'Dome during the game to sort through the toys to make sure they're all good to be in the hands of youngsters. They are the unsung heroes of the day, as they load the bears onto trucks to be delivered the following day to youngsters looking for a pick-me-up this holiday season.

No matter the city or team, the Teddy Bear Toss truly is a spectacle. Not only in watching it, but also in what is done before and after the fur flies. It's hard not to have a smile on your face, in the true spirit of the season, heading into Christmas.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Part 2: The Legacy of 'Mani'

While we never got to see how far Michael Maniago could get in his hockey career, one NHL prospect is taking the former WHL netminder along for his journey.

Adin Hill was just ten years old when he met Maniago, who was one of the instructors at World Pro Goaltending in Calgary. For two summers, they worked together before the tragic crash on November 29, 2008 took his life.

Hill was pretty young at the time, so understanding the gravity of Maniago's death didn't really hit him for a couple of years.

In the 2013-2014 season, Hill made his debut with the Portland Winterhawks. He became their starter for the next two seasons, which gave him the unique opportunity to design his own mask. It was then that he decided to pay tribute to his former coach.

"I've made sure to put 'MM30' on every mask I've had since," Hill told Canes This Week. "He's a huge part of what got me here."

The back plate of Adin Hill's mask in Arizona. Photo courtesy: Alex Kinkopf/Tucson Roadrunners
SEE MORE: Dave Fried's gallery of the mask he designed for Hill for Tucson
SEE MORE: Dave Fried's gallery of the mask he designed for Hill for Portland

"Here" now is Tucson, Arizona, where he's playing with the Roadrunners, the AHL affiliate of the Arizona Coyotes. With starter Antti Raanta suffering from injuries, Hill has also been called up to the NHL once this season and played in a handful of games. Hill looks back at his time with Maniago with admiration.

"He was great with it, he picked out every little detail, but he always had a smile on his face, he was a great guy," Hill said. "There's not enough good things you can say about him."

"His character and attitude and everything was just unbelievable," Hill continued. "He was serious when he had to be, and for the most part, he was smiling and enjoyed his job. That carried into me enjoying training with him. We had a good relationship off the ice and he was just a great guy."

Every step of the way, Hill plans to honour Maniago with his small gesture, in the NHL or anywhere else he goes.

"Regardless of it (the NHL) or not, I want to push myself as far as I can but every time I put on my mask I see that on the back of it and it gives me a little reminder of him to push myself just a little bit harder," Hill said.

The gesture means a lot to those who knew Maniago the best.

READ MORE: Part 1: Remembering 'Mani'

"It really shows the impact that he had," former neighbour and friend Jacalyn Scott said. "We say that even though, physically, he might not have made it to the NHL, in a way he did make it by being memorialized by these players."

"It's amazing, it's absolutely amazing and it just makes me feel better knowing that he's not someone that's going to get forgotten," she added.

"Adin was a young goalie at the time and that's how he treated people, he wanted to be around people and I think it's special," Jeff Battah, Maniago's former goalie coach with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, agreed. "If you can leave that impact on somebody, you've done something pretty special to them and you've treated them the right way."

The sentiment wasn't lost on Maniago's mother, who was the first to point out the mask out to us.

"Words can't express how much it means to me that Mike made such an impact on so many people," Terri Maniago said in a Facebook message. "The dressing room, the tattoo and the goalie mask are just a few of the amazing things people have done in his memory and, to me, that shows what an impact he made."

Hill takes that sentiment to heart.

"He's always there with me when I'm on the ice," Hill said. "He helped me in those few years, it was crucial in my development to become a goalie and to always have him there with me, bringing him along my journey through my career and to have him there with me."

"It truly warms my heart in what Adin has done with his helmet to honour Mike," she continued. "In my own words, I said 'not in the way we would have wanted, but he reached his dream and made the NHL.'"

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