Billy's Bear Hugs live on through teddy bear toss

BYRON TOWNSHIP, Mich. (WOOD) — Teddy bears will fill the ice Friday night at the game between the Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Byron Center High School hockey teams.

The event, which started almost 20 years ago with amateur and pro club games, has caught on locally at a younger level.

Danny Nelson, a Catholic Central senior and captain of the Cougars hockey team, was inspired as a freshman by the Grand Rapids Griffins teddy bear toss.

"I was like, I want to be out there on the ice picking up the bears or scoring the goal,” Nelson explained.

He didn't know at the time about a player who was a captain more than a decade before him at the same school, Billy Wondergem.

Billy Wondergem graduated from Catholic Central and Calvin College then went on to work at a cancer genetics lab. That's where he discovered a rare gene that could change the way doctors diagnose kidney cancer.

The discovery cleared the way for him to go to medical school for pediatric oncology, but before he got the chance, Billy Wondergem died suddenly in his sleep in October 2010. He was 24 years old.

Billy Wondergem's younger brother, Charlie, remembers getting the call and trying to process the unexpected news.

"We immediately thought about how we could continue his legacy and when we thought about what we wanted to do. When we lost him, I saw it to be not just a loss to our family but to the entire medical community,” Charlie Wondergem said.

He was in his dorm room trying to study for finals right after his brother's memorial when his friends showed up with a Build-a-Bear they had made just for him.

“Here I am in my college dorm sitting there with a teddy bear on my lap and in that moment, it made all the difference,” Chalie Wondergem said.

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