VANCOUVER — Like camping and outhouses or flies on a dung heap, hockey gear and stink have long made a nose-plugging, knock-em-dead team.
Lacking an easy way to curb stench — and its travels from locker room to car to home, and back — many players and their families have held their noses and accepted the problem, armed only with self-deprecating jokes to mask awful odours.
But when two hockey dads got stuck in an SUV waiting for a Vancouver-area ferry with six young puck-shooting girls and their six foul-smelling hockey bags, they decided to mount a defence.
Instead of keeling over from spending nearly two hours waiting for the vessel that would take their daughters to their minor league hockey game, Howlett and Bill McDougall spent the next two years battling reek.
The result was Hockey Sudz.
“Anybody that’s ever played hockey knows that stench. Anybody that’s ever had a child that’s played hockey knows that stench. It is unmistakably hockey,” said Keith Howlett, from Tsawwassen, B.C.
“I think, even, there’s some nostalgia with that stench. I’ve meant some old guys my age who are like, ’I’m not washing my gear!’ But there’s a point where it’s too much.”
Trial, error, the advent of the frontload washer, and plenty of research eventually led the high school counsellor and postal worker to create the natural, soap-based product. It’s antibacterial, biodegradable and hypo-allergenic. And unlike other detergents they tried, it doesn’t break down the glue holding gear together.
Nicole Howlett, one of the earliest beneficiaries of her father’s invention, says she and her friends used to be the target of her coaches’ complaints.
“They (were) like, ’Oh, you guys are so stinky,”’ said the 12-year-old, who plays defense for the Richmond Rockets. “It’s sort of funny when they say it to other people and not me anymore.”
The business partners say freshening up gear not only makes travelling to games more pleasant, it’s a health-conscious move that can ward off infection.
Superstition abounds around sports stink, but neck guards, elbow and shin pads can be a garden for bacteria. As players sweat, salts, ammonia and urea soak from their bodies into the gear. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist conditions, emitting a spectrum of repugnant smells.
“There’s a build up of sweat and with heat and humidity you get all kinds of bacteria and fungi that grow there,” said Dr. Paul Basson, team physician for the Western Hockey Leagues’ Chilliwack Bruins and whose 13-year-old daughter also plays the sport.
“It’s not just the actual bacteria that stink, but the breakdown of the actual fibre of the equipment. As it breaks down, it releases chemicals.”
In the worst-case scenario, Basson said, athletes can get an infection called Community Acquired MRSA that manifests as sores or open wounds and in rare cases cause flesh-eating disease.
While currently only on sale at a handful of retailers in Western Canada right now, Howlett said it appears Hockey Sudz (hockeysudz.com) has made quite the splash — he’s even received emails from one user who said it saved her marriage.
And word of mouth about the straight-shooting solution has quickly passed through hockey circles, even landing in the laundry rooms of the WHL’s Vancouver Giants.
The inventors are now working to find a big-box store to carry the product throughout Canada, Howlett said.
“What I’m hoping is other families just like us — that’s our goal — will basically make it a regularly used product that becomes part of the regular hockey culture.”