If you are a young Russian hockey player growing up in a major centre like Moscow or St. Petersburg, finding Western hockey equipment is not as hard as it was 20 or 30 years ago. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, North American brands such as Bauer and CCM have increasingly found their way onto the shelves of higher-end sporting-goods stores. Western gear is widely used by top players.
Bauer sits atop the pro market, commanding the lion’s share of players in the Kontinental Hockey League—Russia’s version of the NHL—over brands like Easton, Reebok, CCM and European-focused manufacturers such as Torspo and Russia’s EFSI and Miklin.
Of the 472 players in the KHL, 257 of them use Bauer sticks (representing about 54% of the league), 394 wear Bauer skates (83%), and 324 wear Bauer helmets (69%), according to the company’s data.
But step outside the metropolitan centres, and beyond the professional levels of the game, and top hockey equipment becomes more expensive or, depending on where you live, a lot harder to get.
Sam Babintsev, a 19-year-old right winger in his second season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Mississauga Steelheads, remembers growing up in the industrial city of Angarsk, a remote stop on the Trans-Siberian Railway that is closer to Beijing than it is to Moscow. He learned to skate at age 4 on a lake near his family’s home. “When I was in Siberia, I used heavy sticks, heavy skates,” Babintsev says. “Sometimes I bought steel sticks.” Those sticks were good for cross-checking, he jokes, but less than ideal for shooting.
When Babintsev moved to Moscow at age 9, his horizons opened up. Western brands, particularly Bauer, were far more available. The only problem was the price. “Expensive,” Babintsev says. “In Russia, it’s maybe twice as expensive” as Canada.
Bauer is attempting to solve those two problems—of price and supply—by cracking the distribution nut and making gear, including entry-level gear, available in cities across Russia. If the expansion works, a stick won’t have to sell for double what it does in Canada.
“There are what we call keystone or established price points in hockey, in every major category, that have been the same for the last decade,” Davis says. “Those price points haven’t moved. What has changed is that the performance of an entry level pair of skates, an $89-to-$99 pair of skates, is drastically better than it was 10 years ago.
“If [Russian players] were using equipment from a company that didn’t have access to the same technology that we do, and they pick up a pair of Bauer skates that are 40% lighter than the skates they are using…” That’s how Bauer will win in Russia, he figures.
Which is where Ovechkin comes in as brand ambassador. For the past two years, the Washington Capitals star has been the marquee attraction at special events Bauer stages to showcase its equipment for Russian kids—and their parents. Last year, the company hosted an instructional camp for young players on the skating rink at Moscow’s iconic Gorky Park. The kids were given Bauer equipment to try. And during the NHL off-season, Bauer hosted hockey practices at a Moscow arena, with Ovechkin leading the kids through drills.
In the absence of large sports-equipment chains that span the whole country, Bauer needs to find retailers that can sell hockey gear the way it wants the equipment sold. “It’s about going into a region, finding folks who are capable of retailing our product and having the service to the consumer that we require for our brand,” Davis says. “It’s a deliberate process; it takes time.”
For help with distribution channels, Bauer has partnered with Intercommerce, a company that specializes in importing consumer goods to Russia. Bauer’s own people on the ground seek out retailers who are interested in allowing a special Bauer-only section in their store. “It’s almost like a shop inside a shop,” Davis says.