Ben Ward has never met Chris Mason, but the Winnipeg Jets' goaltender is about to give his small Ontario company a huge boost that could make it a trendsetter across the NHL.
Ward helps run Brian's Custom Sport Ltd., a goalie equipment business in Kingsville, Ont., near Windsor, that nearly went out of business a few years ago and has just 35 employees.
Brian's specializes in innovative gear and coming up with wild designs for goalie pads, gloves and blockers that incorporates things like beer cans, playing cards, $100 bills or wild animals. It has had some success supplying goalies in junior leagues, U.S. colleges and the American Hockey League.
But competing for NHL goalies has been almost impossible partly because it meant going up against giants like Reebok and Bauer that have deep pockets for sponsorship deals. An even bigger hurdle has been the NHL goalies themselves.
There was a time when goaltenders like Felix Potvin, Sean Burke and Trevor Kidd wore pads covered with creations like cats, flames or checkers. Not any more. Most NHL goalies prefer all-white pads. Why? "Because everyone thinks that white makes them look bigger," Ward said. "That's kind of the basis of the white trend right now. If you go to a dark set of pads, things look smaller for some reason."
Mason and Brian's are on the verge of changing all that.
It started last summer shortly after the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets. Dozens of equipment makers descended on the Jets eager to have the NHL's newest team carry their stuff. Brian's came along as well and caught the attention of Mason, who liked the company's lightweight pads without the traditional straps at the back. Mason dropped his Bauer gear and switched to Brian's. Then a few weeks ago he took things further.
He'd always been interested in having a unique look for his gear, so he called Brian's sales rep, Chris Joswiak, to see if they could do something with the pads. Why not put a version of the Jets' logo on the front?
"I used to do stuff like that when I was a kid all the time," Mason said this week. "I used to draw goalies, goalie pads, goalie mask and all that kind of stuff. I was infatuated with equipment and I loved it. I still do. That's part of the passion of being a goalie."
Ward and his crew drafted a few ideas and finally came up with a takeoff on the Jets' logo that features a jet fighter on top of a maple leaf. The logo is split in half between the two pads. They put the same look on his glove and blocker.
The equipment has won over league officials and Mason hopes to have it this week.
"When they sent me the design, I loved it," Mason said. He was so keen he showed it to Ondrej Pavelec, the Jets' other goalie, who is considering putting something on his pads. News of the design has swept across hockey blogs and online forums with many fans hoping it becomes a trend.
It's quite a comeback for Ward and Brian's. The company was founded in 1984 and it came up with designs for Potvin and others. But it went under seven years ago when new owners got into a family feud over control.
"The company was basically sucked dry and left for dead," recalled Ward, who has been with Brian's for more than 20 years. "The family that owned it didn't seem to get along. The stepfather didn't want his stepsons to have the business."
The business closed and laid off all 45 employees. Two months later, new investors came in and hired back six of the original staff, including Ward. They painstakingly began rebuilding the operation thanks largely to some innovative lightweight equipment.
Brian's started making inroads in the U.S. college ranks, supplying goalies at Michigan State, University of Michigan, Boston College and half a dozen goalies in the AHL. Its only other NHL goalies are Jaroslav Halak of the St. Louis Blues and Ray Emery of the Chicago Blackhawks. They also supply Peter Mannino, who plays for the Jets' farm team in St. John's.
The pads, which are each one pound lighter than most other pads, don't come cheap. A set can cost around $1,500 and the design work can be an additional $500.
Joswiak, an ex-goalie, said he hopes the Mason pads rekindle interest among goalies to adopt their own look. He laments the almost corporate look of many NHL goalies these days. "Goalies are usually these unique characters," he said. "But self-expression has really died down. I hope this sets a trend."