August 14, 2011

From NEHJ: Lacing up brand loyalty

By Jesse Connolly

When it comes to equipment, hockey players are more particular than perhaps any other athlete. 

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is Reebok's biggest skate endorser. (Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby is Reebok's biggest skate endorser. (Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

In need of the right fit, the right feel and the necessary performance level from an enormous amount of gear, players often find what works best at a young age and stick with it.

Among all of the parts of the equipment equation, this is especially true of skates.

“Skates are certainly the most brand-loyal of categories,” said Andrew Stewart, product manager at Reebok-CCM. “When someone has been wearing a particular brand for a while, they’re more hesitant to change. When you’re talking about the consumers, you’re spending upwards of $700 on a high-end pair of skates. You’ve got one chance of getting the skate you’re going to wear for a year or two, so you don’t want to make a mistake. Guys like to stick with what they know.”

Familiarity doesn’t breed contempt but rather content when it comes to skates. Swapping out sticks, gloves and many other pieces of equipment for new models or even a different brand is a considerably easier process than adjusting to a new pair of blades.

“Imagine if you switched brands and all the sudden your balance point is off, you’re not comfortable and you have trouble turning?” Stewart said. “Everybody fears that. Not that it’s going to happen, but people fear that.”

While Reebok-CCM and the rest of its competitors continue to raise the bar for skates at a rapid rate, making them lighter and more durable than many ever thought possible, comfort and fit remain at the top of their agendas.

“I think fit, first and foremost, is critical. That’s why we have multiple families (of skates), because we offer different types of fit,” category general manager Craig Desjardins said of Bauer’s line of Supreme and Vapor skates. “After that, you’re looking at the type of tongue that a player prefers or the amount of feel or support they want from the boot. The aesthetic value can’t be underestimated, because I think consumers always have a preference of certain styling and things like that. The overall durability is critical as well.”

Desjardins reported that 70 percent of the NHL is wearing Bauer skates these days, including Islanders defenseman Mike Mottau (Avon, Mass.), who has worn the brand for all but one year since he was in seventh grade.

“I feel like certain models are extremely light,” Mottau said. “I sweat a lot, and they dry quickly. They either drain or, if you put them in a hot room, they dry quicker than the other ones.”

So how does a young player, like Mottau was during his days in middle school, decide on a particular brand?

“I think there’s different angles to it,” said Desjardins. “First and foremost, we engage directly with the consumer. We’re not only reaching out to them through digital avenues like Facebook and Twitter, but we’re listening to what they have to say, taking that input and evolving products and how we speak to them.

“We have a significant grassroots campaign where we have a demo team go out and physically let the players try the product before they buy it. For a lot of our consumers, they tell us that’s extremely important in giving them the confidence to purchase Bauer.”

Wayne Zwicker of H.A. Zwicker, Inc. in Bedford, Mass., a retail outlet for hockey equipment that focuses on the sale and repair of skates, knows that star power is also a big part of the process. Young kids are quite impressionable and often inquire about the same brands their NHL idols are utilizing, especially Penguins captain and Reebok endorser Sidney Crosby.

“I think it’s huge,” Zwicker said. “The (kids) that have dedicated their lives to hockey, they have a favorite player they’re always reading about and they can see what equipment they’re wearing.

“Sometimes these kids know what kind of jockstrap they’re wearing, it’s amazing. … They’re very aware of what the pros and even the college kids are using.”

Mottau plans to test a few models from Reebok-CCM before the 2011-12 season gets under way, but the 33-year-old blueliner knows making a change at this point in his career won’t be easy.

“I’m trying a couple skates this summer,” Mottau said. “It’s the hardest thing to get into, just because you’re so used to a certain brand. I think hockey players in general are very particular about certain pieces of equipment, and with skates they’re the most particular.”

And if Mottau realizes during his summer experiment that his new gear is too tight, not absorbent enough or simply not giving him the performance on the ice that he expected, he’ll likely revert back to what he’s stuck with for the better part of two decades.

“Generally, players are going to pick their brand of preference when it comes to hockey skates,” Stewart said. “Very few pro players are paid to wear skates. You can pay a guy to wear a helmet or gloves but, if you’re not happy in your skates, you can’t play hockey. That’s the bottom line.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Jesse Connolly can be reached at jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com