It’s all well and good, until …
The Hamilton Bulldogs stage their annual Teddy Bear Toss on Saturday at First Ontario Place, and it’s always a satisfying, and surprisingly emotional, experience. However, not all sports promotions produce the same rich reactions, and we’ve had a few beauts around here. In conversations last week with colleague Scott Radley and former Spectator writer Garry McKay, we got to recalling three or four of them that I happened to be at with one or the other of them. There was the time in the second year of the brief, and long-forgotten tenure of the Hamilton Canucks (the AHL team which died a quick death in 1994) when they’d inexplicably gone to a caveman theme at what was then Copps Coliseum. For some other undetermined reason, they would fly a small dirigible around the upper reaches of the rink as a promotion vehicle. But one day the balloon suddenly lost air and flaccidly flopped upon a group of shocked fans who had to scramble to avoid it. Nobody smothered, but it’s likely nobody bought season’s tickets for the next year, either. Not that there was going to be a next year. And you can’t think of promotions in the local ice palace without immediately remembering the launching tool that the AHL Bulldogs staff employed to rifle free swag into the audience. A submarine chain was a sponsor at the time, so the tool was called the “Sub Gun,” and staff would fire tightly-wrapped sandwiches into the stands. Somewhere in the early 2000s Toronto Maple Leaf president Ken Dryden was in the press box when an errant sandwich screamed into the box, slamming into the wall an inch or so above Dryden’s head and exploding. Covered in food detritus, he was not overly amused. The gun was powerful enough that its contents could reach the rafters if the shooter’s aim was off, which it sometimes was. More than once sandwiches hit the metal rafters, were ripped open, and an aerial salad bar — meats, vegetables, mayo, ketchup, mustard and special sauce — rained down on unsuspecting fans below. “Going to the hockey game? Don’t forget your umbrella.” Over at Ivor Wynne, when Bob Young took over the Tiger-Cats in 2004, he hired a lot of really good, young marketing people. One of their early promotions was a post-game pyrotechnic display, and about 20,000 fans stayed in their seats to take it in. About two minutes into the eight-minute show, it all fell apart as the fireworks seemed to lose their grip on the turf and began firing off in all directions. It was reminiscent of Leslie Nielsen in “Naked Gun” yelling, “Move along there’s nothing to see here!” as he’s standing in front of a blaze at a fireworks warehouse. Some pyrotechnics fired straight down into the turf, which had just been replaced for $1.5 million, and now there were small sections of it in flames. They burned a scar more than a foot in diameter in the west end zone, and charred streaks all over the surface were still visible a few days later. Fans in the east end zone were enveloped in smoke and those in the west end zone — in corporate tents made of canvas — had to make tracks as spinning fireworks threatened to move toward them. And, there was a chance sparks would land in the post-game garbage, or on the flammable wooden seats in the grandstand. It all ended well and the Ticats staged a witty followup promotion later, laughing at the whole affair. Humour is often rooted in pathos and neardisaster, and as long as no one is really hurt, the closer the call the more intense the humour. That was never truer than prior to the Labour Day game against the Argonauts a couple of years after the pyrotechnic failure. Skydivers were to soar down into Ivor Wynne prior to kickoff, but a serious wind began blowing just as they jumped. Nobody came close to a classic landing on the field, which was funny until you realized that some of the divers were actually in peril. One sailed into the scoreboard in the west end and, as Radley recalled to me this week, “It was the only time in my life I willingly held another man’s hand.” I’d forgotten that part. We had a perfect view from the press box and as we followed the path of one parachutist, we realized he was probably going to hit the hydro wires near Prince of Wales School. Radley instinctively grabbed my hand and said: “He’s going to die.” When the skydiver executed a great manoeuvre or two to avoid the wires, we let out a huge sigh of relief; and even from where we sat, you could see he did too. But then he suddenly recognized he was landing right in front of a moving school bus, whose driver had absolutely no reason to expect a paratrooper to appear in front of him like a ghost. But somehow he avoided the bus, everyone was safe, and we didn’t stop laughing for a week. We still laugh about it now, although we got some nasty emails, which suggested maybe we should try skydiving in a brisk wind and see just how funny that actually is. We didn’t try it, of course, because we know our job: It’s making fun of chaos, not being part of it.
Veteran Spectator columnist Steve Milton has pretty much seen it all in his 40 years covering sports around the world and, in Being There, relives special moments of those stories, from the inside out, every Friday. If there’s a memorable sporting event you want Steve to recall, let him know at email@example.com. Chances are, he was there.
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A scar left behind by a pyrotechnic promotion gone awry at Ivor Wynne Stadium in 2004.