Heritage Wood Specialities Inc. is in party mode. It's been 100 years since its plant in Cambridge began producing professional hockey sticks.

"This facility was founded in 1905 under Hespeler Wood Specialities," says company president Paul Bossenberry. "Over the past 100 years, ownership has changed numerous times."

In the 1930s, the facility was purchased by the Seagram family, the owners of Seagram's Distilleries, who owned several Ontario sports equipment companies.

The new company, Hespeler-St Mary's began producing hockey sticks and baseball bats. It was during this period that the "Hespeler" hockey stick appeared, which proved to be a popular model.

Simon Wilson, Business Edge
Heritage Wood Specialties president Paul Bossenberry poses with the product.

"Over the years, it would not be a stretch to say that a third to half of all National Hockey Leaguers used our sticks," says Bossenberry. "That includes Bobby Hull, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.”

Indeed, Gretzky's autograph can be found on a number of Hespeler hockey sticks available for sports collectors' auctions.

The sports manufacturer Cooper bought out Hespeler-St. Mary's in 1972. "During that time, Cooper became the largest supplier of baseball bats to the major leagues," says Bossenberry. "Cooper also became a huge name in hockey products as well."

Cooper would later be bought out by Charon Industries (which produced Bauer products), which was bought out in turn by Nike Inc., in 1994 to produce Bauer Nike Hockey Inc. (BNHI).

The Hespeler facility continued to produce Bauer sticks for seven years. Then, in October 2003, the firm announced it would close the facility.

But a loyal cadre of managers and employees didn't want to see production end. Paul Bossenberry, who worked with Bauer Nike since 1993 as an outside contractor and consultant on automation equipment, says he saw opportunity in the closure announcement.

"I happened to be here the day of the announcement and immediately approached Ross Huehn with a proposition to purchase the operations from BNHI with the help of some key employees."

Huehn, the facility's plant manager, had been at the site since 1972. Huehn has a passion for baseball bats and had purchased equipment from BNHI in 1999 to start a company called KR3 Custom Bats, which he ran in his spare time.

In March 2004, Bossenberry put his consulting company on hold and began negotiations with BNHI to purchase the assets. "At first, it seemed as though a deal would not happen because BNHI had outsourced all of the production, and was keen on selling off all the equipment and property," he notes.

But Bossenberry pressed on. "In the end, BNHI was not successful in selling off its equipment, and they were concerned with how they could maintain the high standard of their custom professional sticks. So ... last year, Ross, Frank, Dave, Steve, Bo and I signed the agreement and completed the sale. Heritage Wood Specialities Inc. was born."

All of the signatories of the agreement have a long history with the facility. Frank Cavenaugh and Dave Mather both started working for Cooper in 1976. Steve Schlitt was hired in 1987. Robert "Bo" Crawford joined in 1991.

"We have a combined experience of over 130 years, and we carry on the tradition and history of the manufacturing of hockey sticks in this plant for the last 100 years," says Bossenberry.

Ross Huehn also moved his KR3 Custom Bats operation back into the plant.

All the owners of Heritage Wood Specialities have a passion for their sports. Bossenberry speaks easily on the craft of making a hockey stick.

"A hockey stick, depending on construction, takes about five days to produce," he says. "Woods such as aspen, ash or birch veneer are cut, graded, moulded to dimension and shaped. The resulting components are then assembled in as many as four gluing processes. After a 'core' has been created, it is bevelled, bent and sanded. Fusing of fibreglass or composite materials is done prior to a final sanding and buffing. The stick is then sealed, buffed, painted, printed and quality checked before being packed and shipped."

Despite his experience in automating equipment, Bossenberry prefers a human touch when it comes to making his sticks. "Some of the processes can be done by machine, but fusing, fine-sanding, and custom flex and bending are the true craft in stick making. These cannot be duplicated, and these are particularly fussy operations when it comes to Custom Pro products."

Since taking over the facility, Heritage Wood Specialities has produced 80,000 hockey sticks under several brand names. They have also produced sledge hockey sticks, lacrosse handles, souvenir mini hockey sticks, and blades and handles for other name brands. The company earned $1 million in revenue last year and currently employs 15 people.

"We are looking at producing over 400,000 sticks and related products this year," says Bossenberry. "We hope to employ 30 people and are looking toward $4 million in sales."

However, he's aware of the challenges ahead, including the development of composite, one-piece sticks. "As a result of good marketing, there is a perceived performance enhancement with these lighter weight sticks. I say 'perceived' because McGill (University) recently completed an extensive study that concluded there is no improvement in the speed of the shot between composite sticks and wood."

Another challenge comes from hockey stick manufacturers in China, Mexico and India flooding the market with cheaper products. "It will be hard to compete with the low cost of labour in these countries," says Bossenberry. "It is estimated that the labour rate in places such as Vietnam is about 22 cents US, currently."

But Bossenberry believes in his sticks, the wood they're made from, and the country they're made for.

"I believe the wood stick will remain strong in terms of market share," says Bossenberry. "I also believe that being 'Made in Canada' will mean something to not only Canadians, but to hockey players throughout the world. It is, after all, our game."

(James Bow can be reached at bow@businessedge.ca)