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Baltimore-based STX plans line of ice hockey equipment

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STX, which built its business through innovation on the lacrosse field, aims to play in a larger but more slippery arena — the ice rink.

The Baltimore-based sports equipment maker plans to introduce a line of ice hockey sticks and protective equipment by late 2014. The company, based in Pigtown, has begun building new office space and posting job openings to prepare for the launch.

It's a rare foray into a new business for STX, which developed the first plastic lacrosse head in 1970. It added golf putters in 1980 and expanded into field hockey gear in 1993.

But ice hockey equipment seemed a natural extension of what it makes now, said Jason Goger, the firm's president.

Hockey made sense because lacrosse shafts and ice hockey sticks are made of similar lightweight composite materials, and athletes in both sports wear shoulder and elbow pads and need flexible gloves that still provide ample protection, STX officials said. A fair number of athletes play both sports, and STX already has relationships with retailers that sell both types of equipment and with suppliers that provide materials.

Ice hockey offers STX a significant revenue growth opportunity if it garners even a fraction of the global market. STX officials said the global market for hockey gear is estimated to be between $500 million and $600 million a year.

Lacrosse, which remains one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States, has a global market of between $120 million and $150 million. STX is privately held, and officials won't discuss its finances.

Reaching hockey consumers won't be easy, though. Bauer — once owned by Nike but now publicly traded — claims to have 52 percent of the global hockey market and reported revenue of $375 million in 2012. Bauer moved into lacrosse by purchasing Maverik in 2010. CCM and Reebok also have seen a resurgence, and Easton — which pioneered non-wooden hockey sticks — remains popular.

"It will be real tough for STX," said Josh Schjolin, assistant manager at the Total Hockey store in Rockville. "It's just hard to compete against the companies who have been around in a sport like hockey. Dad wore Bauer, so of course you're going to try on Bauer first."

STX management hopes to capture consumers by bringing innovation to gear the company believes sorely needs it.

"The status quo has been pretty stagnant," said Ed Saunders, STX's director of marketing and a former employee of Bauer. "We're looking for revolution when it has mostly been evolution. We're not saying we will come in and change the game overnight, but we see room to help players improve."

When Saunders joined STX 18 months ago, the company was several months into its hockey project. Jim Benton, then director of business development, led efforts to study existing equipment and gather feedback from players at all levels. Specifically, he looked for weaknesses, constantly asking players, "What don't you like? What one thing would you change?"

Their answers did not vary much, nor did they come as a surprise. Athletes everywhere seek gear that is lighter and stronger at the same time. STX believes it can deliver.

"We've been working quietly because we didn't want to say anything until we knew we could get the product right," Benton said. "We're confident now that we can do that. The last thing we wanted was to just jump into the category and put our name on products that didn't live up to the equity that name has built."

STX developed some rough prototypes. Ice hockey sticks began showing up in the crowded, bustling lab a block away from the corporate office in Pigtown. Engineer Sam Lacey, another new hire, tested dozens of sticks, using a machine to bend them at different points — often until they broke — and measuring how they react.

Once the initial products went through tinkering, STX released them into the field. Benton and others from the company set up controlled sessions where players of all ages and skill levels — including NHL players — used the equipment and offered feedback.

"That's everything to us," Benton said. "We try not to bother with internal design. What matters is what the players want. More specifically, we ask them what they're not getting. We chase failures."

Development will continue over the next year and a half, and marketing efforts will be increased. The company hired Rocco Amonte, a former representative for Reebok whose brother Tony was a five-time NHL All-Star, to persuade pro players to use the gear; and Matt Hoppe, the senior global brand manager for hockey, has strong ties throughout the industry.

Buy-in from recognizable stars will be crucial to STX's success, Saunders said. Total Hockey's Schjolin said STX's main obstacle in the local market will be the fact that Washington Capitals star Alex Ovechkin endorses Bauer.

STX officials remain undaunted as they prepare for their first new business division in 20 years.

Benton, now director of product management for STX, has preached a methodical approach to building the line but said the hockey business "could be much bigger than we're even giving it credit for," if executed well.

For Goger, named president earlier this year after serving as general manager, adding the hockey line means having a chance to pay homage to the company's roots.

"That's really in our DNA," he said. "We all come from that entrepreneurial bent. It's close to our hearts. We have an opportunity to live up to that here."

chris.korman@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskorman

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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