Gladiators donate teddy bears

DULUTH - On Jan. 17, the Gwinnett Gladiators collected nearly 5,000 stuffed animals during their annual Teddy Bear Toss promotion. On Thursday, the organization distributed the donations, taking them to local fire departments and other agencies.

The Teddy Bear Toss is a tradition in minor league hockey. On that night, fans are encouraged to bring small to medium-sized new or gently used stuffed animals, which they toss onto the ice when the home team scores its first goal. It results in an impressive pile on the ice and a nice boon to local organizations.

"There are all shapes, sizes, colors ... it is one of the great visuals you'll ever see at a sporting event," said Jim Hall, Gladiators director of community relations. "There are fins and antlers and feet and ears; whatever any kind of animal would have. It's remarkable."

That pile was gathered and stored for donations, which were made on Thursday, with Hall being joined by Maximus, the team's mascot. The stuffed animals will be distributed to various organizations, including the Salvation Army, the American Legion, Cure Childhood Cancer and the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center.

Many will find their way to the Gwinnett Fire Department's Trauma Bear program.

"We put the stuffed animals on fire trucks and ambulances and whenever we encounter a child who has been traumatized or frightened by something that's happened to them, we give them that bear or that stuffed animal," Gwinnett Fire Department spokesman Capt. Thomas Rutledge said. "At that moment, they need something they can hold onto ... to know that somebody cares."

Hall said many casual hockey fans, along with season ticket holders, make a special trip to the arena to root for their team while helping give a child a stuffed animal companion.

"As an organization, we have to tip our hats to our fans," Hall said. "You almost give them a standing ovation because of the unbelievable generosity. And it's not just the Teddy Bear Toss, our fans support so many other things - that's what's so amazing."