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Canadian icon Sher-Wood sets sail for China

hockey sticks

Fred Lum

Intense global competition is laying low an industry dear to the heart of any Canadian who ever grabbed a hockey stick and laced up a pair of skates, or scrambled off the road when a buddy yelled "car."

Sher-Wood Hockey Inc., Canada's storied hockey stick manufacturer, is leaving home ice for good at the end of this year, moving the last of its stick production to China to slash costs.

Thursday's decision by Sher-Wood is the latest blow to what little is left of Canada's once-thriving hockey stick manufacturing industry and it underlines how vulnerable manufacturers are to the global forces of low-cost competition.

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The shift is the culmination of years of tough slogging for Sherbrooke, Que.-based Sher-Wood, the legendary 62-year-old company that built its reputation turning out highly regarded wooden models loved by pros and amateurs alike but that now turns out mostly composites.

The company said it has no choice but to ship out the remaining part of its production of composite players' and goaltenders' sticks to China, where it has over the years steadily been moving its manufacturing facilities.

"This is a difficult decision. We have had a presence [in Quebec's Eastern Townships]for more than 60 years," Sher-Wood's marketing and product development director Eric Rodrigue said in an interview.

Sher-Wood said it will phase out the 15 per cent of production still done in Quebec by the end of the year.

About 40 employees will lose their jobs as a result of the change. Sher-Wood also makes hockey equipment, the official National Hockey League puck and souvenirs and other hockey-related licensed products. Those activities will remain in Quebec, employing 110 people.

Mr. Rodrigue would not provide details of how much lower costs are in China, but he said there are other competitive advantages as well, such as the potential to develop new products in the region.

He cited competition from larger, more aggressive rivals in the consolidating hockey equipment industry as a key factor in the company's shift to Asia, which followed the lead of all the major players, including top dog Bauer Performance Sports Ltd. and rivals Easton and Reebok.

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Sher-Wood's dwindling wooden-stick manufacturing was outsourced five years ago to a local company.

Sher-Wood is believed to be the last company still making sticks domestically, on an industrial scale. A handful of companies making wood sticks remain on a limited-run basis.

"It's a reflection of how composite stick making went offshore after manufacturers in Asia started producing much cheaper but good-quality product," aid Robin Burns, the founder of hockey equipment maker Itech who is now a Montreal-based housing developer.

"It's not something we as Canadians like to see happening, especially for a product that's so closely associated with Canada. The traditional Canadian-made hockey stick is certainly becoming a thing of the past."

Bob Stellick, who runs a Toronto sports marketing company, says the move is a sad comment on the demise of a Canadian icon.

"As hewers of wood and drawers of water it was natural for us to make wooden sticks for our game. But then came the demise of the wood stick industry and now the loss of homemade composite sticks," he said.

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"The composites were a North American specialty but then the Chinese started making cheaper knock-offs and then higher-quality product."

The high value of the Canadian dollar doesn't help manufacturers who export, including hockey equipment makers, he said.

At the same time, the industry is now very much a marketing- and brand-name driven industry, Mr. Stellick said. Where the product is made no longer carries much weight whereas the brand - such as the hugely popular Warrior sticks a few years ago - does, he said.

Ben Logan, manager and equipment buyer at the Fontaine Source for Sports store in Peterborough, Ont., said Sher-Wood has had a tough time making the transition from its famous wood sticks - Hockey Hall of Famer Guy Lafleur once lauded the firm's P.M.P. 5030 model as "the best stick in the world" - to composites.

"It hasn't been easy to pull off," he said.

Not that the company hasn't innovated. In 2009, it launched a line of carbon composites that have high-density foam-core blades to reduce vibrations.

Still, Sher-Wood also faced elimination three years ago, when it was known as Sherwood-Drolet.

It filed a proposal with its creditors under bankruptcy protection laws.

It was scooped up by Carpe Diem Growth Capital of Richmond Hill, Ont.

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About the Author
Quebec Business Correspondent

Bertrand has been covering Quebec business and finance since 2000. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2000, he was the Toronto-based national business correspondent for Southam News. He has a B.A. from McGill University and a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson. More

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