July 28, 2012

Goalie superstores cater to hockey's unique position

By Jesse Connolly

As the old adage goes, players who take on the position of goaltender usually march to the beat of a different drum. 

Stores like Sports Etc. (Arlington, Mass.) have synthetic ice for players to try out equipment.

Maybe it’s the pressure of being so depended upon within a game, or the presumed pinch of craziness they must possess in order to be willing to stand in front of a frozen disc made of vulcanized rubber that can be fired at them in the blink of an eye, soaring at speeds in excess of 100 mph.

Whatever the case may be, netminders simply are a different breed of hockey player. When it comes to outfitting a goaltender, no position requires more attention to detail, making goalie superstores a godsend for puck-stoppers young and old.

“The biggest thing is goalies like to go to a store where they feel special,” said Rob Howland, the head buyer at Pure Goalie who has been with the company since 1994. “Goalies are very unique people. I was one. Obviously with goalies, it’s a different mindset. They want to be their own person. A goalie having that space to go into, they feel welcomed into that store and feel like a special person.”

It’s no secret that hockey equipment has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Nearly every element of a goalie’s gear is lighter than ever before. Gloves and blockers are more flexible and considerably easier to break in. More importantly, pads offer much better protection, especially in the chest pad area where the sternum padding is considerably dense, which disperses the impact from getting hit by a hard shot.

Not only has the technology of the equipment improved, but so has the knowledge of players and parents looking to purchase such equipment.

 “I’d say the consumer is a lot more in tune with what products are out there and how they perform, thanks largely to the Internet and all the resources out there,” said Paul Stanton, who has worked at Sports Etc. for 25 years and replaced Vince Phaneuf as owner in March.

“Pricing-wise, the prices have changed drastically too for the kids. They’re a lot more expensive than they once were. Years ago, kids were coming to a goalie store and wouldn’t know what to get and their parents wouldn’t know what to do. Now they know specifically what kind of pad they want, how it performs and what alterations you can make to a pad to make it perform better.”

With players and parents becoming so well-versed on the wide array of offerings from the top manufacturers, retail outlets that cater specifically to goaltenders are becoming more and more popular.

“Honestly, a lot of the customers know a lot more than the average retailer,” Stanton said. “I don’t think we’re in that group, but I think that’s why a specialty store is really important to go to. A specialty store is really going to be able to cater to a kid, fit his needs and try to find out what works best for him in terms of performance.”

From the moment they walk through the door, goalies often are assigned to one employee who is capable of outfitting them from head to toe, providing them with gear that’ll give them the most protection and enable them to maximize their performance.

“Usually what we do is if people come in, you stick with one employee,” Stanton said. “Our goalie staff is very knowledgeable. They’ve been trained by all the manufacturers on how to fit all the products, and they have proper education on all the differences between the products.

“There may be times when it’s a more involved decision, if they’re doing some customs, and then we might bring in a senior member to consult. They’ll make sure they’re making the proper decisions if they’re doing a special order for a pad, make sure if they decide they’re going to change the breaks of the pad that they understand how it’s going to work, and to make sure it performs better.”

A similar process goes on over at Pure Goalie, which has four locations throughout New England. The company also is big on allowing goaltenders to exhibit their personalities and style through customization of their equipment.

“We start trying to figure out what’s best for that person, with price point, flexibility, lightness and what not,” Howland said. “They try to figure out all those things that the customer is looking for. If they’re looking to customize the pad, they can do that as well. So if they wanted to have their own colors, their name on it, some special things on the pad, adjusting straps and things like that, whatever it is, we can do it.”

Perhaps the most enticing thing these goalie superstores have to offer is the chance for netminders to get a feel for their equipment before they walk out the door, all thanks to synthetic ice, which can be found at Pure Goalie’s Braintree, Mass., location (and all of their future stores), as well as at Sports Etc. in Arlington, Mass.

“At our store, we have synthetic ice on the floor,” Stanton said. “The kids are allowed to try multiple pads on and they can actually get in the skates, get the pads on and get in the butterfly position to see how they perform and how they react to them. It gives them a big benefit to see how it’s going to go before they hit the ice.”

Unfortunately for some parents, as alluring as these goalie-centric outlets may be, not all of them can foot the bill. Play It Again Sports — which buys, sells and trades new and used sports equipment — offers a viable alternative.

“Once they come in the store, people are really kind of blown away,” said Brian Coleman, who owns the Play It Again Sports store in Stoneham, Mass. “We’re a pretty big store. People assume we’re a small store and we only sell used equipment, but once they get through the doors, they realize how much stuff we’ve got and they’re usually pretty happy with what they see.”

Coleman said customers can expect to save 50 percent or more at Play It Again Sports, which comes in handy for parents whose children might be on the fence about taking up the position.

“A lot of parents aren’t sure what to do if their kid’s trying goalie and they’re not sure he’s going to stick with it,” Coleman said. “They don’t want to go out and spend a thousand dollars then have their kid decide to go back to forward. It’s a good way to test the market and not break the bank for parents.”

No matter which direction a player or parent decides to go in, the good news for goaltenders is that there are more venues than ever before that they can rely upon to outfit them properly, offer them top-notch expertise, keep them within their budget and send them home happy.

As far as Howland is concerned, they’re also more than welcome to stay a while.

“Goaltending is a position we’ve dedicated a lot of space and inventory to,” Howland said. “So we hope they feel like it’s a place they want to hang out.”

With everything a netminder needs at his or her fingertips, Howland and the rest of his competitors’ goalie havens surely will be buzzing all year round.

This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ

Email: jconnolly@hockeyjournal.com