Marc-Andre Fleury of the Pittsburgh Penguins makes a save on Mark Mancusco of the Vaughn Panthers Minor Atom Single-A team during an open practice before facing the Toronto Maple Leafs. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
The hockey industry has unfortunately been a forerunner in a very dubious category lately – economic downturns.
While global finances, especially in the United States, have taken a beating lately, the manufacturers of hockey equipment have been faced with similar stark realities for even longer. So much so that major conventions have been cancelled and several high-profile mergers have made a small industry even smaller.
One recent acquisition pretty much sums it all up: Bauer Hockey, previously known as Nike Bauer Hockey, took in Mission Itech. Bauer had been sold by Nike last year because the parent company didn’t think the hockey division was making enough money to justify its existence under the Nike umbrella. That doesn’t mean business was bad - it was actually very good - it means it had simply hit a ceiling that comes from the fact only so many people out there play hockey and buy the equipment.
Now Bauer brought in Mission Itech, a firm that itself was composed of two companies that had merged only years prior; Mission and Itech.
It doesn’t take an economist to see what the next few years of overall economic downturn will do to the hockey industry. The sport is expensive to play and while beer leaguers can hang on to the same shoulder pads for a little longer, kids don’t have that luxury – they grow, pretty much from season to season.
This will do nothing to youth enrollment this year – the kids have already signed up, bought their gear and are most likely already playing – but next year, when mom and dad are trying to stretch that dollar, tough decisions will have to be made.
Naturally, for an industry already hit up by rises in costs due to the price of oil (for shipping products) and other raw materials (for making said products) the last thing the equipment lobby needs is a drop in actual customers.
So what’s the solution? Give it away.
Not all of it, of course, but the industry needs to create a new supply of players (a.k.a. customers) in North America. The rate of people taking to the ice in Wilcox, Sask., or Roseau, Minn., isn’t going to change; it’s New York City or downtown Toronto where things can grow and, fortunately, the foundation is there.
Programs such as H.E.R.O.S. Hockey, which operates in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton, get kids from economically challenged parts of cities geared up and on the ice, where they learn to skate, shoot and play the game. In Toronto recently, the kids got a special visit from new Maple Leafs grinder Jamal Mayers, while the hockey-loving school principal, father of Habs prospect P.K. Subban, was also involved.
The impetus of a program such as H.E.R.O.S. is to help build self-esteem and encourage kids to do well in school through rewards such as NHL tickets and that is a fantastic goal in and of itself. If some of those kids work their way up the ranks and make the NHL or the women’s Olympic team, that’s an awesome by-product.
Another initiative, one supported by the NHL, NHLPA and major companies in the industry, is the OneGoal grassroots movement. The premise here is to get more kids playing hockey by offering them low-cost opportunities to try on the gear, get out on the ice and play. Since hockey is expensive as a sport, parents need to know if their kids actually like playing, or just think they want to play before tossing their helmet in the back of a closet with their bass guitar and judo outfit.
Both H.E.R.O.S. and OneGoal are win-win for the industry and need to be both nurtured and furthered. The shame of conventions getting cancelled is that one of them was the OneGoal convention, where some of the proceeds went to the grassroots side.
There will always be hockey players, no matter how rough things get out there. But if the industry wants to be savvier than they’ve been in the past, they’ll keep fostering players in major cities, even if the end result is “only” a couple more happy kids in the short-term. With so many other options available to kids, it’s the long-term love of the game that matters.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
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