The Ottawa Senators kept this year's National Hockey League playoffs interesting for Canadian fans of the sport with their run to the Stanley Cup final, where they fell short in losing in five games to the Anaheim Ducks. But it was the equipment manufacturers from this side of the border that kept the teams and players at the top of their game on the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup.
All 30 NHL teams use equipment manufactured by Blademaster, of Chatham, Ont.
"We're the only company that can say that every single NHL team runs some Blademaster equipment," says marketing manager John Mariconda. The company specializes in skate-sharpening equipment and dryers for skates and gloves, in stationary and portable formats.
The company was previously known as TFM Industries before being purchased by Guspro Inc. in 1986.
|File photo by Mike Sturk, Business Edge|
|A Graf Canada employee works on turning out one of the 50,000 pairs of skates the Calgary-based company produced last year.|
"Canada certainly has the reputation in the hockey business for being the leading supplier, and that starts with the players' equipment and it extends over into our side of the business," says Mariconda. "Blademaster's had a period of consistent sales growth over the last few years. We've had growth on the pro side and on the retail business side, which is the stores that actually sharpen skates for ordinary hockey players."
Philip Woodard is co-owner of TPS Hockey, headquartered in Wallaceburg, Ont. Woodard and his three partners came together in 2005 to purchase H&B Canada from Hillerich & Bradsby, the company famous for creating the Louisville Slugger baseball bat.
Woodard says hockey sticks make up about 60 per cent of the company's sales, but it also manufactures every type of protective gear except for skates. They have a small factory in Strathroy, Ont., that makes high-end, custom goalie pads.
"This is the first year with our products that we've really been able to put our stamp on them. We've grown the business 50 per cent year over year."
Woodard says TPS Hockey brought in about $25 million to $30 million in sales in 2006.
"We do about 45 per cent of our business in Canadian sales, about 35 per cent goes to the U.S. and then 20 per cent export. So we're really exporting around the world. In fact, we have the largest market share in Japan," he says.
Calgary-based Graf Canada has also been picking up steam in the NHL and the general public with its hockey skates since its inception in 1997. Graf's skates are designed with a foot's length, width, volume, ankle and arch in mind.
"Our brand wasn't that well known over here and then ultimately we were able to capture quite a significant share of the skate market, particularly the upper-end skate market," says Graf Canada president Mike Hill.
The Graf company began in Switzerland in 1921. Other than the NHL lockout in 2004-05 and the year after, he adds, "it's been a strong growth story."
Hill says the company sold about 50,000 pairs of skates in North America last year.
Blademaster's Mariconda says the NHL lockout actually help-ed to increase his com-pany's presence in Europe.
"A number of Canadians and NHL players went and played in Europe, and that really boosted interest in pro hockey in the European markets," he says. "That's really been a boon for our business because they had this increase in fan interest, which has increased attendance, which has made the teams more profitable and that's meant an overall increase in business for companies like ours."
According to statistics from Trendex Sports Vision, the Canadian hockey equipment market brought in $257 million in estimated retail sales in 2005. Sports Vision tracks consumer purchases of sporting goods equipment, sports footwear and sports apparel by sending out questionnaires twice per year.
The public is the main buyer of hockey equipment, but it stands to reason that NHL exposure is an important part of the marketing process for Canadian manufacturers.
"It gives you recognition and credibility," Woodard says. "If it wasn't at all used there, I don't think we'd have the sales that we do today. But along with that, you have to have a good product at the right price that the consumer wants as well.
"We have about 70 players using TPS equipment, which is about 10 per cent of the NHL. We have a few prime ones that we pay contracts for like Rick Nash (of the Columbus Blue Jackets)."
New York Rangers star forward Jaromir Jagr wears Graf skates. But Hill says his company is different than other manufacturers because it doesn't pay anybody to wear its product.
"With the players, I don't think it's ever an issue of the money. I think it's more an issue of the prestige of being a sponsored player. So we have our struggles with that, but we're always able to get a reasonable number of players," says Hill.
While TPS and Graf rely on the NHL for the marketing side of business and individuals for sales, Blademaster makes its money from selling its equipment to the teams in professional and junior leagues across North America and Europe.
Mariconda says Canada's reputation in the hockey world helps to sell Blademaster's products, which range in price from $1,500 for a portable skate-sharpening machine to $20,000 for a top-of-the-line skate service centre.
"We've earned this reputation in North America for really being the highest-quality machine available on the market, and the best sales and service after the sale. And because Canada's looked at as being the leader, if we're good enough to establish this leading presence in this market, that's essentially made us qualified to service export markets too," he says.
Sports such as soccer are gaining popularity in Canada among children, but Hill says it's not necessarily causing a drop in hockey equipment sales in that age group. "I couldn't tell you overall what's happening, but certainly our business has seen a growth in the kids' market."
Woodard says hockey has even become a 12-month sport. "Right now there are camps running for tryouts for next year's leagues," he says. "I think what's happening in sports is kids are specializing earlier and earlier. So if a kid is interested in soccer, the soccer organizations almost want them to dedicate everything to soccer. And hockey's the same way.
"Any youth now who wants to go up past sort of a house league, really has to focus on the sport."
As for the future of hockey-equipment manufacturing in Canada, Hill says it's pretty much gone.
While Graf Canada says it makes 99 per cent of its skates in this country and Blademaster makes all its machines in Chatham, much of the manufacturing of hockey equipment has moved offshore.
"The simple truth of it is, five years ago most of the protective equipment was manufactured in North America. And part of the reason for that was always a quality issue. That the offshore factories couldn't build the quality that you build in Canada. But that's no longer true," Hill says.
"The Chinese and Vietnamese factories are really good, and they're getting better all the time. And their labour is so much cheaper than ours."
Adds Woodard: "Most of that effect has already happened to our site. If you go back about three years ago before we took over the organization, it was probably twice the size. It's unfortunate but, from a price competition, it's hard to compete with Asian-manufactured sticks now."
Only TPS's high-end sticks and protective gear are still manufactured in Canada.
"Anything you might see on TV, whether that's at the NHL level or at junior games are the high-end products we continue to build in Canada. But anything you might see in a retail store is coming from offshore," he says. "But we're pretty proud that this is a Canadian hockey company."
(Dave Richie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)