Photo: Amanda Hertel Gwinnett Gladiators defenseman Cody Brookwell picks up stuffed animals during the team's annual Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnett Center.
DULUTH -- A stoic, gray-haired man sits alone in Seat 1, Row S, close enough to the hockey ice that the air is chilly. He snaps pictures of himself. Beside him, an oversized, plush gorilla clutches a heart-shaped pillow with a message: "Ape Over You."
The man is Mike Barton, 60, an electrical engineer from Lawrenceville who spends about 80 percent of his working year on the road, a little detached. He has no children. He's never been married.
Yet a few minutes ago, Barton walked in from the Gwinnett Arena parking lot carrying two trash bags brimming with stuffed toys and dished them to kids he'd never met. He'd bought the holiday-specific toys on post-holiday sales at Kroger. He's been attending the Teddy Bear Toss night at these Gwinnett Gladiators games for years, each time giving gobs of toys to kids -- and tossing one big toy on the ice himself. He doesn't really care for hockey.
In coming weeks the toys will be received by kids who need them more.
"I've had a good life, might as well help somebody else out," says Barton, who films the event so his niece in Germany can watch via YouTube. "I donate to children's charities and the elderly. I figure the in-between can take care of themselves."
Barton's philanthropic sentiment prevailed Saturday night. The hockey game hosted not only the toy toss but the official kick-off to the Gwinnett Relay for Life, the largest overnight cancer walk in the world.
During the Gladiators' first break period, the arena lights fell and the purple neon necklaces of cancer survivors glowed. There were a lot of necklaces. A bagpiper played "Amazing Grace." Relay team captains walked a cautious lap around the ice, their goal to raise $2.1 million for research this year via 400 local teams.
"I like this," said Relay supporter Caren Camp of Gainesville, whose grandmother succumbed to cancer in her esophagus. "This is great."
As for the toys, collections over the years have totaled nearly 50,000 stuffed donations. The disparate recipients have ranged from kids pushed around by Hurricane Katrina to children with Gwinnett County DFACS.
At 17:16 in the second period, the Gladiators score. Kids rush the glass and a cotton hailstorm ensues. A stoic, gray-haired child is among them.