Matt Hoppe remembers finally getting his hands on a red and white Titan hockey stick -- the one Wayne Gretzky was using to set record after record -- and plopping down in front of the television to spend 45 minutes applying tape to create the perfect grip.
"It was like the best day of my life," Hoppe said. "Your equipment means so much to you when you're a kid."
Hoppe, the new senior global brand manager for STX's ice hockey division, hopes that by late next year kids will have a similar experience with sticks the Baltimore-based manufacturer pushes to market. STX, best known for innovative lacrosse gear, revealed its decision to enter the $600 million hockey market during a meeting at their Pigtown headquarters Monday.
Officials there emphasized -- repeatedly -- their desire to bring top-level innovation to the equipment they eventually sell. The move toward selling hockey gear began more than two years ago with a comprehensive study of available gear and has progressed via a series of organized sessions with players of all ages and abilities who test the gear and offer immediate feedback.
That work was completed by Jim Benton, a close confidant to STX president Jason Goger. The two worked together and Black and Decker, and Benton has served in several roles since joining STX.
Goger asked him to assess the hockey market because he knew he'd get an honest answer.
"He went out with a blank sheet of paper and no real background in hockey gear and evaluated whether it was something we should do," Goger said. "If we brought in a hockey guy, of course they're going to say there's room to do more – and if we pay him more he'll help us do it."
Benton urged the company to move forward slowly, though, and develop gear that would rival the best on the market as soon as it debuts.
STX officials believe that one of their chief rivals on the lacrosse field, Warrior, rushed into the hockey market a few years ago to take advantage of a hot brand name. In doing so, they pushed inferior products to market. (A spokeswoman for New Balance, who owns Warrior, refuted that insinuation and said the company went through an extensive period of research and development.)
Players were quick to embrace Warriors sticks and gloves, which many observers had expected because those areas dovetailed with the company's work in lacrosse. When Gretzky used that Titan stick, he wore stiff gloves with a long cuff to protect his forearm. By the time Warrior entered the market a few years ago, hockey players were demanding more flexible gloves – not unlike those already used in lacrosse.
At least according to Warrior's own website, there's quite a bit of technology behind the company's Dynasty line of sticks. Also note that the stick is endorsed by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, who is currently working to make the Stanley Cup favorite Pittsburgh Penguins look like an average minor league team in the Eastern Conference Finals. STX has hired Rocco Amonte, whose brother Tony is one of the better American-born players in NHL history, to drum up support in the NHL.
(It doesn't hurt that Amonte's sister Kelly has built one of the most impressive dynasties in all of college sports with the Northwestern women's lacrosse team. The former Maryland star built the program from scratch, too. It's an astounding story.)
Some of STX's early stick development efforts have focused on durability, which is a smart move. Players at every level complain about sticks breaking during play. In the NHL, it means you've flubbed your shot and need to skate over to the bench. In rec league, it means you're going to have to buy another $250 stick and your wife is more likely to consider divorcing you.
"Thirty days is the standard warranty," said composites engineer Sam Lacey, a recent hire. "That's ridiculous. We really want to make some changes there."
Meanwhile, industrial designers Michael Cox and Brian Hammer must work to ensure that STX's gear represents a fresh but also familiar feel.
"Hockey players know what they want, what they expect," Cox said from STX's crowded research and development office. "So we have to give them that while also introducing the new features we think can set us apart."
STX is currently in the middle of adding office space, enough to grow the staff of 100 by 20. But Goger hasn't yet decided how many hires he'll need to make. That partly depends on how well the gear sells, but also on finding talent. That, Goger says, has been the biggest challenge involved in adding the company's first new division since 1993.
"We sometimes leave a job open for a year until we find the right fit," he said. "We want people with latitude, who can handle a range of jobs and work in an undefined space. We're looking for people who come at the world the same way we do."
For the next year, much of STX's world will be focused on hockey gear. Breaking into the market, as I wrote in my story today, will not be easy. Bauer and CCM are legacy brands, and Easton long ago established a reputation for having the most cutting-edge sticks.
Most of the retailers I spoke to Monday were hesitant to weigh in on STX's new business until they see the products, saying their customers can be intrigued by new technology but most often make purchases based on reliability.
Hoppe, who played at Division I New Hampshire, thinks STX will have a chance to make an immediate impact.
"Hockey players are gear heads," he said. "If we can come up with products that move the game forward, they'll be lining up to use them."