It's no secret that hockey's biggest stars work with personal trainers. Andre Leitert isn't one of them, but he knows the best, and it's not a former player or a sport scientist, but a 1,400-kilogram, robotic drill sergeant.
The skating treadmill is more than just a souped-up, computerized unit designed to help future greats hone their skating skills. Trainees wear a harness while skating on a treadmill that revolves at up to 32 kilometres an hour under the watchful eye of a coach located a few metres away. It's helping to build a unique business model in the sports industry.
"The old adage that you just strap on your skates and spend days out on the pond to get to the NHL are long gone," explains Mr. Leitert, president of National Fitness Products of Canada Inc., a Caledon, Ont.-based company and distributor of the Woodway Blade Skating Treadmill.
"In the '70s, '80s, and '90s, if you knew how to push, and how to fight, you had a chance. Now, if you can't skate really, really well, you're not going to make it."
Thousands of young hockey enthusiasts — and an increasing number of NHL players — appear to agree. They're flocking to take advantage of the 29 skating treadmills currently installed in facilities across the country. But instead of being one more piece of training equipment in the coach's corner, the skating treadmill is proving to be the cornerstone — the anchor of a burgeoning number of hockey centres offering other training services.
When Jeff Atkinson bought his first skating treadmill he was a coach and hockey dad with a business background who was having trouble finding ice-time for his young players in Calgary. Today, the owner of Skillz Skating & Shooting Centre says the skating treadmill is the foundation of his growing business.
"It's very obvious parents are thrilled with the results they're seeing in their kids," Mr. Atkinson explains. "They're seeing quicker and more immediate improvement in their foot speed, their level of optical improvement and overall performance."
Athletes training at Skillz not only benefit from one-on-one or small group instruction while skating on the treadmill, they build skills in other areas of the facility. They can work on stickhandling on the centre's synthetic rink, for example, or perfect their shooting prowess in front of the computerized RapidShot system, capable of passing hundreds of pucks each hour.
Mr. Atkinson opened his first training centre five years ago. He's since added a second skating treadmill there to keep up with surging demand, and a second location with a third treadmill, aimed at training more elite athletes.
John Crombie isn't surprised that there's a growth market for training facilities with skating treadmills. "Retailing is all about what's new and exciting," the senior managing director of retail services at Toronto's Cushman & Wakefield explains. "Businesses stay relevant and current by innovating and introducing new ideas."
The way he sees it, the business model being utilized by Skillz and others that are anchoring their businesses with the skating treadmill is similar to one used by Golfzon, which has a handful of locations in Canada. The centerpiece of Golfzon's global business is a 3-D indoor golf park that simulates playing on the world's best courses. But the company has used its core business to parlay into a host of other lines — selling equipment and golf lessons, for example.
Success for companies that distribute products such as a simulated course or a skating treadmill will depend on more than an innovative product, says Karen Fischer, partner in the consultancy R.K. Fischer & Associates in Toronto. It will depend upon a well-thought-out business and marketing plan that can be shared with clients, she adds.
"It's about more than creating a brand new product. It's educating your clients in how they can build their businesses and figuring out a model that others can duplicate."
It's a lesson Mr. Leitert, the distributor of the skating treadmill, learned early. His company now holds annual networking conferences to bring together two disparate groups who typically buy into his business — trainers and business people with no sports knowledge.
"We're doing our fifth conference this year to bridge that knowledge gap. Whether it's helping our trainers learn about how you develop a brand, or to educate business people about hockey and sports training," Mr. Leitert says.
"We're all learning as we go. And we're seeing more and more interest. Not just in North America, but globally."