When Tim O'Neill needed new hockey skates, he decided to spring for a really good pair. He plays in a high-level competitive league, and felt the pressure to keep up with his teammates.
So he picked up a $650 pair of skates, more than twice the price of his previous pair. Instead of leather, the boot is made of plastics and composite fibres. He also spent $140 on a high-tech stick, almost five times more expensive than his wooden one. He knows others who are shelling out more than $300 on a new stick.
"It's more keeping up with the Joneses," the 30-year-old Edmonton stock broker said. "I don't know if my hockey is better. But every guy who is now upgrading his equipment is dropping money on it."
Whether driven by fashion or technology, the trend to higher-end hockey gear is helping fuel a rollout this summer of two national specialty hockey chains. Each with a small base in Quebec today, these businesses are betting that consumers such as Mr. O'Neill will fork out more money for slicker, and pricier, hockey equipment.
"Sports is very closely related to fashion," said Bill Patrick, president of the Canadian Sporting Goods Association. "You've got to change almost for change's sake. Having said that, most of the changes are for the better. You have to continually re-invent yourself."
Retailers are gearing up to cash in on the reinvention. In August, Sports Gilbert Rousseau Inc. of Montreal, with an assist from two private equity investors, will launch its first Pro Hockey Life superstore in Vaughan Mills mall, north of Toronto. At about the same time, Calgary-based Forzani Group Ltd., the country's largest sporting goods merchant, will open Hockey Experts, also in the Greater Toronto Area. Both retailers have plans for cross-Canada expansions.
High on their agenda is upscale hockey equipment. Its prices have soared, in some cases almost 10-fold, over the past decade, far exceeding the rate of inflation, which has risen at about 23 per cent in the same period. The products are lighter weight and billed as performance enhancing. The big producers, including Nike Bauer Hockey, outfit star players in the gear, transforming it into must-have fashion.
The most dramatic shift has probably been in sticks. While 10 years ago they were made of wood and cost up to $40, today they come in graphite and fibreglass and cost as much as much as $330.
Youngsters are among those who covet the pricier products, trying to emulate their NHL superheroes, said Jack Steckel, a partner at investment banker Capital Canada Ltd., one of Pro Hockey's financial backers.
"The kids idolize these players," said Mr. Steckel, a retail advertising veteran who helped found the superstore chain Golf Town and came up with the idea for Pro Hockey. "They want to use the same equipment that these people are using."
Still, it won't be as easy to crack into specialty hockey retailing as it was to break into golf, said retail analyst Robert Gibson at Octagon Capital. Pro Hockey faces much tougher competition than Golf Town did when it started in 1999, he said.
Forzani is already the leading player in the estimated $750-million Canadian hockey retail market, according to Mr. Steckel's figures. Forzani sells a wide range of hockey gear at its SportChek, National Sports and other chains. Canadian Tire Corp. is the second ranking retailer, while smaller chains and independents make up the rest of the market.
The hockey retail assault comes at a time when involvement in the game is growing only moderately across the country, according to Hockey Canada data. However, there are pockets of participation that are booming, most notably among women players. Both retailers have their eye on chasing that market.
But in catering to women, Pro Hockey stores will not have a separate women's section because they don't want to be treated differently, said Keith Hunt, who was hired away from Forzani to be senior vice-president at Pro Hockey. Rather, women want the best gear available.
There are other ways Pro Hockey will court women. It will stock his and hers jock straps - "Jack and Jill straps" - and narrower shoulder pads and pants for women, he said. (The pants will be wider in the hips.)
Hockey Experts, which has tested six stores in Quebec, targets women more directly in a separate section, said Tom Quinn, president of Forzani's franchise division. But he acknowledged that most women shoppers still head for the main equipment area. "Women aren't looking for a pretty hockey skate. They're looking for a performance hockey skate."
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