It didn't take long for teddy bears to fly Saturday night at the Tillsonburg Kinsmen Memorial Arena.
"I hope we get to our seats in time," said Jim McDonald as his daughter Kasey stepped off the ice after singing the pre-game O Canada.
The puck was about to drop for Saturday's WOAA senior men's hockey game between Tillsonburg Thunder, locked in a four-way battle for first in the South Division, and Seaforth's Huron East Centenaires, still looking for their first win.
Exactly one minute and three seconds after the opening faceoff, Thunder's Kevin Galerno netted the most important goal of the game.
"In all the ones I've played in – junior, college, pro – that was the quickest (teddy bear goal)," said Galerno.
The McDonalds, just barely settling into their seats, joined the crowd in sending hundreds of plush toys to the ice where they were gathered by the TMHI Remax tykes (Blue, Red, White, Black) and coaches. A total of 246 teddy bears were collected for The Salvation Army and Power of Hope.
"It was a great pass by (Shane) Balcomb," said Galerno, who beat screened Huron East goalie Tyler Koot with a low wrist shot. "I didn't see it – I just shot it through a guy and it found a lucky hole. It was lucky one, for sure."
Five years ago Thunder defenceman Justin Hofstetter scored a "quick" teddy bear goal 5:28 into the first period. Four years ago, it came late in the second, and three years ago defenceman Brad Streib sent the plush toys flying 1:26 into the second. Last year defenceman Mike Findlay got it.
Some tyke coaches and parents remember the game it took three periods.
"We just wanted to get it out of the way early," said Galerno. "Everyone's talking about it and wondering when it's going to happen – it's fun to get it out of the way early. It's fun on the ice for the kids, and it's for a good cause."
Before the game, Thunder players and staff tried to 'pick' the goal-scorer – just in fun. Mike Findlater, Nathan Peacock and Ryan Stephenson – the team's point leaders – would have been safe bets this year.
"I would have liked to have seen Findlay get it again," said Galerno, "to make it a streak."
But when the puck dropped, they were all gunning for it. Forty-one seconds later Josh VanDyk scored to make it 2-0, and the Thunder were en route to a 12-1 victory. Shots on goal were 54-20 for Tillsonburg.
"It's just a game like any other game. We always want the first goal, and tonight just happened to be a little extra added bonus."
They could have used an early goal Friday night in Clinton. The Radars went up 2-0 in the first period and rode the early lead to a 7-3 win.
"We were down 3-0 before we got one," noted Galerno.
"This one tonight was good for the confidence. I'm not talking about the seventh, eighth and ninth goals, but the first, second, third... get them early, get guys shooting the puck. For guys who aren't finding the net, games like this are good for that."
Tillsonburg Thunder captain Nathan Peacock reached the two-century mark in points Saturday night.
"News to me," the veteran of five WOAA senior hockey seasons smiled the game.
The milestone was announced during the first period when he reached 200, which included an assist on Galerno's teddy bear toss goal. The TMHI grad added a second-period assist and third-period goal to reach 202 points.
"Played with a lot of good players," said Peacock, crediting his teammates, including the 2014-15 crew. "When we have everyone here and we play the game we can, we're a strong team.
"We're looking forward to the second half – the main thing for most of us, for the guys who've been here a few years, is to finally win a championship. We've lost in the finals three out of the last four years, so we're pretty much overdue. Guys are getting up in years and the opportunity's getting shorter."
The Thunder – loaded this year with veterans – also have a couple rookies familiar to local hockey fans.
"It's great to have those local guys resurface again," said Peacock with a nod to Brad Martin and Chad Barclay. "It's great."