Cor­po­rate in­vestors new own­ers of hockey skate icons

Sherbrooke Record - - EDITORIAL - Peter Black

Comes a time ev­ery hockey player dreads. It’s not miss­ing that easy putt in the goal crease, trip­ping over the blue line on a break­away, or even tak­ing a hard shot of frozen rub­ber to the ten­der vi­tals. No, the real mo­ment of dread is the re­al­iza­tion you need a new pair of skates.

Suf­fice it to say, footwear is of el­e­men­tal im­por­tance to the hu­man species. For fash­ion or func­tion­al­ity, we are all heav­ily in­vested in what we af­fix to our feet. Skates, be­cause they are ut­terly vi­tal to the qual­ity of per­for­mance asked of our feet, are a par­tic­u­larly prob­lem­atic item.

The chal­lenge is to break the new skates in be­fore they break you. Some would rather en­dure a root canal or va­sec­tomy.

But be­fore you get to savour the sweet agony of feet squeezed and chafed to a bloody pulp in the vice-like boot, there is the plea­sure of shop­ping for new blades, and, if you do a lit­tle re­search, you learn there is lots go­ing on in the cor­po­rate world of hockey skates.

You learn, for ex­am­ple, that the best­known skate brands in Canada changed own­er­ship this year. CCM, born as Cana­dian Cy­cle and Motor com­pany (or “Cheap­est Crate Made” by the cyn­ics of a cer­tain gen­er­a­tion), got in the skate blade busi­ness in 1905 us­ing scrap metal from its bikes and auto parts man­u­fac­tur­ing.

In re­cent years CCM has been through more cor­po­rate moves than a Savar­dian Spin-o-rama (thanks, Danny Gal­li­van). Back in 2004, Amer­i­can sports footwear gi­ant Ree­bok gob­bled up CCM, and iconic brands Koho and Jofa around the same time. Along came the even big­ger gi­ant, Ger­many-based Adi­das, and scooped up the en­tire hockey gear pack­age.

In re­cent years, Adi­das has been re­fo­cus­ing its di­verse prod­uct line and hence its hockey skates prop­er­ties, CCM and Ree­bok, were put on the block. The deal did not in­clude CCM’S uni­form li­cens­ing con­tract with the Na­tional Hockey League, so this sea­son we’ll see the Adi­das logo on team sweaters.

That was great news for a com­pany in Granby, SP Sports, which swung a deal with Adi­das to com­bine with Sports Maska, another lo­cal com­pany, to man­u­fac­ture all NHL jer­seys, as well as those for Olympic and in­ter­na­tional hockey, un­der the Nike ban­ner.

In July, Montreal-head­quar­tered CCM found a buyer, in the form of Toron­to­based Birch Hill Equity Part­ners, a for­mer di­vi­sion of TD Cap­i­tal. The $3 bil­lion com­pany, whose port­fo­lio in­cludes ev­ery­thing from mat­tresses to bread, paid $110 mil­lion for CCM. There is no word at this writ­ing whether Birch Hill plans to make any changes to its op­er­a­tions, which in­clude man­u­fac­tur­ing plants in St-hy­acinthe and St-jean-sur­riche­lieu.

Then there’s Bauer, another his­toric Cana­dian com­pany, which came up with the idea of bolt­ing blades to boots. Un­der its par­ent com­pany, Per­for­mance Sports Group (PSG), which also in­cludes the Eas­ton brand, the man­u­fac­turer had been in the cor­po­rate penalty box for years, with lay­offs at its main Que­bec plant in Blainville. PSG was in bank­ruptcy pro­tec­tion and des­per­ate for a saviour.

Cana­dian busi­ness scion Paul Des­marais III came to the res­cue early this year, through his Sa­gard Hold­ings com­pany in part­ner­ship with Toronto’s Fair­fax Fi­nan­cial, pay­ing the $575 mil­lion ask­ing price. Des­marais said at the time of the sale he wanted to so­lid­ify Bauer, whose head of­fice has been in Ex­eter, New Hampshire, as a Cana­dian com­pany. The new owner of Bauer is called Peak Achieve­ment Ath­let­ics.

Com­bined, Bauer and CCM, ac­cord­ing to one in­dus­try re­port, ac­count for about 90 per­cent of the global hockey equip­ment mar­ket.

That cor­po­rate con­cen­tra­tion in the skate man­u­fac­tur­ing world may seem un­usual if not wor­ri­some, but it’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent from the re­tail busi­ness. Most Que­be­cers would buy their new blades at a Cana­dian Tire, Sports Rousseau, En­tre­pot du Hockey, Sports Ex­perts, Hockey Ex­perts, and Sport Chek or, if you’re in On­tario, Na­tional Sports — all of which are owned by Cana­dian Tire (as well as out­door gear re­tailer At­mos­phere, and Mark’s work clothes stores).

Some new in­de­pen­dent sports gear stores — Spor­tium, for ex­am­ple — are try­ing to split the de­fence, so to speak, of the Cana­dian Tire dom­i­na­tion of hockey gear. The ven­er­a­ble re­tailer, though, has a tight grip on the mar­ket — as tight as a new pair of skates.

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