Corporate investors new owners of hockey skate icons
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.