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Sports Authority

O’Connell: Local clubs back quality causes

| Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sometimes the greatest and most bizarre sports traditions manifest themselves in places where we rarely think to look. Take, for example, the Calgary Hitmen, a major junior hockey team that shares its home ice with the NHL’s Calgary Flames and plays in the central division of the Western Hockey League.

Chances are you haven’t heard of the Hitmen unless you happen to be from the Calgary area or you pay close attention to prospect pipelines in professional hockey. They’ve only been around since 1994, and while they have won two WHL championships, their slasher-themed logo and red and black jerseys hardly invoke images of hockey’s old guard.

You’d be forgiven, then, for not having been aware of the rather impressive record set by the Hitmen a few days ago. This was no hockey record, though the event was initiated by Hitmen forward Jordy Stallard, when he snuck a wrist shot from the slot past the opposing goaltender Tuesday. Instead, it was a charity record — and one that produced some of the most impressive pictures I’ve seen to date in a hockey arena.

Stallard’s second period goal prompted the 21st annual Teddy Bear Toss, a beloved charity event for Hitmen faithful. The tradition itself is not unique or even unusual — Notre Dame’s own hockey team sponsored a similar event this past weekend — but the payout from this particular manifestation of the charity drive that gives stuffed toys to underprivileged children for Christmas was singularly spectacular.

The Calgary Hitmen average about 10,000 fans per home game, which is impressive for a major junior team but not close to the maximum capacity of the Scotiabank Saddledome. On Tuesday, though, a sellout crowd of 19,289 bombarded the ice surface with a record-setting 28,815 stuffed animals.

The collection and cleanup from the frenzied event delayed the hockey game by about 40 minutes, but the result seems to have been more than worth it. The images that resulted from a city’s hockey faithful flocking to an event like this and contributing to such a peculiar, but productive charity is simply a beautiful sight to be hold.

The Hitmen are not the only ones to get into the holiday spirit. A number of teams across major junior and minor professional leagues in North America have taken advantage of themed nights and holiday celebrations as of late — including some brilliantly ugly novelty jerseys worn by the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades for their Star Wars night in November and the ugly Christmas sweater-inspired jerseys worn by the AHL’s Rockford Ice Hogs just this month.

Professional sports in America are very serious and very closely controlled. Brand image is more important than ever across all sports, hockey and otherwise, and sometimes, it feels like American professional sports leagues are a bit afraid to have fun in a world with such high stakes in terms of both finances and championships.

This giving season, then, let us thank the minor league and major junior sports franchises in our home communities — no doubt you have one near your home town, advertising its bizarre theme nights and teddy bear tosses as a means of interfacing with a community that sometimes forgets they exist. Sports are part of our culture, and sports teams are at their best when interacting and giving back to the communities that power them. For this reason, it seems high time to pay a little lip service to the many and sundry smaller teams that make things like Tuesday’s record-setting teddy bear toss a reality.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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