TORONTO — Hockey equipment has come a long way since Mark Messier used magazines as shinpads for a game of road hockey as a kid.
The Hall of Famer hasn’t forgotten those days and is helping lead a campaign to help get children — and their parents — an affordable door into the game.
Hockey Canada, Canadian Tire and Bauer, the iconic equipment maker looking to reclaim its turf after tough financial times, are also involved in the First Shift program, which Messier’s sister helped create.
All of the participants have their reasons for being involved but for Messier the goal is simple — to keep growing Canada’s sport.
“When we did the study to begin the program, nine out of 10 kids in the country were not playing hockey, which you would think was the other way around,” Messier said in an interview. “I think that set the alarm bells off for everybody.”
The man known as Moose says forget Bauer, business sales and everything else. Look at the world hockey scene.
“If Canada is to maintain its superiority — or perceived superiority — at the international level, at the Olympic level, we have to somehow figure out (how) to maximize our talent pool in our country,” said Messier, a six-time Stanley Cup winner who has served as a Team Canada coach and GM.
“So there’s a bigger game being played as well as just the retail side of it. The bigger vision is how does Canada stay at that elite level? And by creating more talent, introducing more kids (to hockey), I think is one way of doing it there.”
Messier’s sister Mary-Kay Messier, vice-president of marketing for Bauer Hockey, has spearheaded the project, looking for ways to introduce kids aged six to 10 to the sport by breaking down the barriers of entry and making parents feel comfortable in bringing their kids to the rink.
The $199 First Shift program cost covers head-to-toe — Bauer — equipment and six on-ice sessions.
“Just get the kids coming to the rink, put the equipment on, get on the ice and figure out a way for them to fall in love with the game of hockey,” said a chiselled Messier, who looks a decade younger than his 56 years.
It has grown from a few pilot programs in 2014 to more than 200 programs.
Some 5,000 kids have gone through it, with 86 per cent going on to enrol in local community hockey programs.
Messier, who is quick to note that an entry-level player doesn’t need the same technology as an elite player, calls it a “win-win for everybody.”
For Bauer, the program is a chance to help rebuild its brand — this time under new ownership.
The US$575-million sale of Performance Sports Group, the parent company of the Bauer and Easton brands, to Sagard Holdings and Fairfax Financial Holdings was completed in February after no other bidders emerged from a three-month restructuring process.
Sagard is a U.S. investment firm controlled by the Desmarais family.
Under previous ownership, Bauer suffered through a perfect storm of retail woes as participation in core sports dwindled, several large sporting goods chains closed their doors and the company offended other retailers with plans to open its own flagship stores.
Paul Desmarais III, chairman of Bauer’s new parent company Peak Achievement Athletics, says the sale is bringing Bauer back to Canada — with a commitment ”to spend what it takes to continue driving great product and at the same time making hockey as accessible as possible.”
Desmarais, whose family is worth $6.71 billion according to Canadian Business magazine, calls hockey “a great equalizer.”
Messier is looking to make hockey accessible in other ways. He is an enthusiastic backer of the US$350-million Kingsbridge National Ice Centre project, which would bring the world’s largest indoor ice centre to the Bronx.
Messier, who ended his 25-year career in 2005, says he still watches “too much”
“The western games are a bit taxing the next morning when you’ve got to stay up,” he said with a smile. “But I do, I watch a lot of hockey. I enjoy the game. I watch it as a fan, just because of the energy in playoff hockey. There’s nothing like it in my opinion.”