The smell of leather hangs thick in the air, tangled with the scent of metal and wood and the years-old collections of dust that gather here and there atop the shelves lining every wall in the place. It’s mid-March of 1991, and 26-year-old Marco Argentino is perched on a stool in the back corner of this unassuming shoe repair shop, engrossed as he inspects the finer details of the hockey gloves on the desk in front of him. This isn’t any old run-of-the-mill establishment, though walking down Wellington Street and glancing up at the curling blue-and-white lettering atop the storefront — Cordonnerie Argentino — a passerby could be forgiven for not feeling the full weight of the Argentinos’ place in Montreal’s storied hockey history.
No, this shop isn’t interchangeable with any of the others that have lined this street, precisely because the pair of gloves sitting before Argentino isn’t interchangeable with any other in the city. These particular gloves belong to Guy Carbonneau, captain of the Montreal Canadiens, who’s awaiting the results of Argentino’s work as he prepares for the ’91 playoffs. The problem is the palms. The captain wants them replaced with something thinner, something that gives him a better feel for his stick. Argentino’s already made one unsuccessful attempt today, sewing on a fresh horsehide palm and making the trek up to the Montreal Forum, only to be met with a stern, “Thinner.” Having dug through the endless shelves and drawers and cabinets that crowd every inch of the shop, Argentino’s found an even thinner piece of horsehide to work with. He’s hand-cut it, and now carefully sews the new palms to the blue-and-red gloves — the colours a constant reminder of the stakes of a misstep.
When he’s done, he gets in his car, drives back across the Lachine Canal to the Forum, walks back into that legendary dressing room, where stands Carbonneau. The captain takes the gloves and gives them a quick try. “Too thick.”
Respectfully incredulous, Argentino heads back out for attempt No. 3, painfully aware that his first experience as the man charged with perfecting the Canadiens’ gear is at risk of going off the rails. But Argentino is a problem-solver, a creator, an innovator. So, he drives north towards Park Avenue, to one of Cordonnerie Argentino’s suppliers. “I want the thinnest, softest leather you have,” he declares as he’s through the door. The man behind the counter disappears momentarily and returns with a roll of exceptionally delicate calf leather imported from Italy — it’s used for the inner lining of women’s shoes, he’s told. That’ll do.
His next trip to the Forum is a much smoother affair. He hands the gloves over to Carbonneau, who slips them onto his weathered hands for the third time today. A single nod. Job complete. On to the next.
For Argentino, what’s next would grow to include the full gamut of the hockey equipment world. The son of a shoemaker from Italy who opened that shop on Wellington Street and saw it become a Montreal hockey staple, Argentino’s taken the artistry passed down to him all the way to the Olympics, to a slew of NHL All-Star Games and to a key role with CCM — the culmination of those experiences granting him a unique understanding of the relationship generational talents like Wayne Gretzky, Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid have with the equipment that helps them dominate the sport’s biggest stages. As the world of NHL gear continues to grow — both as a business and technologically — Argentino is a call-back to the old school. He’s a reminder that there are some things a creative mind and a deft touch can do that a machine still simply can’t.
The doors to Cordonnerie Argentino first swung open in 1954, five years after Marco’s father, John, came to Canada from Italy. Even before his son was old enough to reach the top of the workbenches, John would bring Marco to the shop on Saturdays, where the younger Argentino would mill about in the background before being pulled over to watch his father work his magic. For John, the weekend routine was about more than just father-son bonding. It was about giving Marco the same gift he’d reluctantly received in his own younger days. “In Italy, when I was a young boy, when I would come back from school, you [didn’t] go to the house and play around,” John says. “You have what is called the Master, the master of the shop — whether that’s a barber, or tailors, shoemakers, wherever. My father had a friend who was a shoemaker. Not [wanting] to see me run around in the streets of the city, he used to send me over there.” Time was dedicated to learning the craft, he explains, establishing a foundation.
Just as John had spent his youth learning the art of shoemaking, Marco began tinkering away in the shop at five years old, eventually standing on a milk crate to sharpen a pair of skates for the first time at 12, with John looking on. Eight other shoe repair shops dotted the same street in those early days. John’s is the only one that’s stuck around — though the fact it did has very little to do with shoes.
“Back in the day, Verdun was a mecca of hockey,” says Marco of the borough, which was a city in its own right until merging with Montreal in 2002. “[It was] just the natural transition of fixing shoes and leather goods — all the kids played hockey over there, and so people would come and see my dad to fix a glove, fix a pad, stuff like that.” The addition of a pedestal skate-sharpening machine in the late ’60s helped, too — “they were always lined up with skates,” Marco remembers. Even in the early days, the shop was linked to Montreal’s greatest on-ice exports. A young Denis Savard used to come in with his family back when he was playing for the Verdun Leafs pee-wee team, decades before he’d see Marco holding his captain’s mitts in the Canadiens’ locker room. But it was the arrival of Canadiens equipment manager Eddy Palchak at the shop’s counter that truly changed the course of the Argentinos’ path in the sport.
It was the late ’70s and the club — in the midst of a run of four straight championships — was practising nearby at the Verdun Auditorium. Palchak got in the habit of popping into Cordonnerie Argentino any time he needed a piece of gear repaired. For a young hockey fan like Marco, who’d only seen the Canadiens greats on TV, or imagined them flying towards him when he played goal, it was a startling bridging of two worlds.
He remembers coming to the shop one particular Saturday after Palchak had been by and finding his dad working away on an unremarkable pair of skates.
“You know who’s skate this is?” John asked him as he repaired a torn eyelet on one of the boots.
“It’s Guy Lafleur’s.”
“I was looking at the skate,” Marco recalls, “and it was this beat up, old pair of Daoust 301s. And I said, ‘These are not Guy Lafleur’s skates. What are you talking about?’” As it turns out, they were — the very ones worn by the most prolific scorer in Montreal’s history, there amid the bevy of beaten up wooden tools, the shoe boxes stuffed with tangled up tape measures, the peanut butter jars repurposed to stock zippers and buckles and any other bauble one might attach to a piece of leather. And yet, Lafleur’s were far from the last pair of Hall-of-Fame skates that made their way through Cordonnerie Argentino’s doors.
The decades Marco Argentino spent in the shop as a young man gifted him far more than just the ability to work a sewing machine better than anyone else on the block. “What my dad passed on to me is the artistry,” Argentino says, “the craftsmanship of not just fixing but thinking of ways of how to improve, how to change, how to innovate as well.”
Palchak visited less frequently in the early ’80s as the Canadiens shifted to handling more of the repairs themselves, bringing gear to Cordonnerie Argentino only when emergencies arose. Argentino took over the shop the from his father in 1990, launching Argentino Sports and focusing the business on hockey equipment. A year later, he reached out to the veteran equipment manager hoping to revive the family’s ties to the club and eventually heard back from Palchak, who ushered Argentino into a role as the team’s official point man for equipment repair and maintenance. And with that, Cordonnerie Argentino was back in the big leagues, once again an extension of the Forum itself, disguised as a local diamond in the rough.
The gig was far more taxing this time around. “When my dad was doing it, it was just Eddy coming in if he needed something,” Argentino says. “But as hockey progressed in the ’90s, the equipment started to change and the demand on the players [increased]. It almost became a full-time job. So, when I first went into the Montreal Forum in ’91, I was there almost every single day.” Head to the Forum, load the damaged gear into his hockey bag, haul it back to the shop to hammer out the repairs, and rush it back to the rink before puck-drop — Argentino’s exhausting new daily routine.
It was a humbling experience. While he waded into the Canadiens dressing room — “the holiest of holies,” as he calls it — with a deep appreciation for his craft, he quickly learned that alone wasn’t enough to cut it at the sport’s highest level. A tireless work ethic had to fill in the gaps. “It forced me to elevate my game,” he says of that first year with the club. “Just like someone who’s playing junior who moves up to the NHL, if you don’t elevate your skill level, you’re not going to make it. And it was the same thing for me. I thought I was good at what I did, and I realized I wasn’t. That my game wasn’t there.”
Three months into his tenure with the club, he wanted out. The demands seemed too great, too absurd — it was the Carbonneau Palms Incident but every day, with local all-stars like Patrick Roy similarly scrutinizing every aspect of their gear. “But I don’t quit,” Argentino says. “I put my nose to the grindstone and kept going, and what I learned, [how] I’ve grown from that, is that it doesn’t matter what anybody throws at me. I can do it.”
And they threw plenty, says Jimmy Licorish, who worked alongside Argentino at the shop back in those days, forging a working partnership alongside Marco that’s since lasted nearly three decades. Those Canadiens years were the most hectic of the bunch. The pair would be sharpening 100-plus skates a day from local walk-ins, he recalls, eating cold lunches at the machine between pairs, drinking paper-cup coffees long after they’d been drained of their heat. “He’d have this big white bag, and you always knew what the day was going to be like when he walked through the door,” Licorish says. “If he was walking like this” — he hunches over under the hulking imaginary load — “you knew you were going to have a big day.”
The biggest days came in early June, as the Canadiens embarked on the final series on their path to the ’93 Stanley Cup. That run served as a poignant reminder of the sway of NHL superstition, with stars on both sides of the aisle calling on Argentino for outlandish requests.
The first made its way to Argentino ahead of the most pivotal game of the series — Game 5, with L.A. on the ropes courtesy of a 3-1 Canadiens series lead. It was common practice for Argentino to work with both Montreal’s players and the visiting team. So, going about his routine in the Kings dressing room, Argentino was informed the captain wanted to see him after the reporters had cleared out. Argentino obliged, later returning to meet with Wayne Gretzky. “He pulls his glove off the shelf, and he had a small little stitch [in need of repair] — I don’t think it was an inch long,” Argentino says, “but he had a big hole in his palm. I said, ‘Do you want me to patch [the hole] for you?’ He says, ‘No, no, no, no. Don’t change anything. Don’t touch anything.’” Just the minor repair, he was told. “I said, ‘Okay, if that’s what you want… but you have a big hole in your glove.’” Nope. The Great One wasn’t interested in moving away from what had been working for him ahead of the do-or-die tilt. So Argentino did as he was told, repairing the stitch and returning the glove, gaping hole and all. “And that was the night that Montreal won the Stanley Cup.”
Perhaps the most interesting request he ever received came courtesy of Patrick Roy on the eve of the 1994 season. With Roy in the process of switching to a new set of pads, Argentino was called in without explanation. “I get down there and he has his pads — he had one set of pads, and then he had another set of pads — and he took a scalpel and he had just cut right through the side of the pad,” Argentino recalls, eyes wide. Roy, it seems, wasn’t thrilled with the idea of moving on from the pads he’d won the Cup in. “He says, ‘You see this? I want this in there.’ And I go, ‘You got to be kidding me.’” He had less than a day to turn the shambled mess into something NHL-calibre. “I opened up both pads like a book, took them all apart, took all the stuffing out, re-stuffed them all, rebuilt them all.”
Wild as the demands may have sometimes been, Argentino was unfazed. His outlook was simple, he says. “For me, they’re craftsmen, and the tools that they use is what we’re giving them … It has to be perfect. They need to step on the ice and think [about] nothing other than the game. Anything other than that is going to throw off the game. At the skill level where they are, the guys on the ice, they’re ready. Physically, they’re there. The rest of it’s all played in their head. So if they step on the ice and something’s not right with the gear, it messes with their head. So, for me, it has to be seamless.”
Finding his way to the holiest of holies and working with Carbonneau and Roy and Gretzky and countless others over his decade with the club was surreal for Argentino, a dream-like extension of what his father had started on Wellington Street. But it was 2006 when their stories truly came full circle, when he was invited to work the Winter Olympic Games. The site of those games, of course, was Turin, Italy.
They were the first Games hosted by his father’s country in 50 years. But what hit Marco harder than the fact that hockey had taken his family name back to Italy was simply the prominence of the stage his father’s artistry had risen to. “I had to actually pinch myself to say that I was at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games,” he says, recalling walking by the Olympic flame each day and stopping to reflect on the moment, “and I’m here with the best hockey players in the world.”
As it turned out, working with the world’s best came to be somewhat routine for Marco. Upon returning from that whirlwind trip, he moved on from the shop — leaving it in the capable hands of one of John’s former shoemakers — and took a position as a senior technician with CCM’s pro department, a role that tasked him with personally perfecting gear for Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid, John Tavares, Carey Price and a litany of other elite CCM athletes. A year after taking the gig, he was asked to work his first All-Star Game. And he was brought back for a number of others, his penchant for putting out fires quickly becoming an invaluable resource for many in the game. It didn’t matter what you put in front of him, he was going to approach it the same way — the Argentino way.
“My dad taught me a long time ago, he said, ‘When you fix something, when you modify something, pretend it’s your glove,’” Marco says. “This is your glove — how are you going to fix your glove, because you’re going to be playing with it. Different mindset. He always instilled that — whatever leaves the front door has our name on it, and it has to have that standard, that quality that we needed to put on there.
“The work speaks for itself.”
Standing amid a collection of gifts even the Hall of Fame would envy, Argentino is near giddy recounting tales of some of the more impressive displays of brilliance he’s seen from NHLers during his three decades working with the pros. It’s late September at the CCM headquarters in Saint Laurent and Argentino’s eyes are scrunched up with joy behind a pair of smart, frameless Nike glasses as he leans against one of the two workbenches lining each side of his comfortable workshop nook. He’s been in this space for 15 years, and its walls attest to the relationships forged in that time. To his left and right, signed photos of Crosby, Patrice Bergeron and Vincent Lecavalier hang. Behind him, a signed shin pad from Tavares — the first piece of gear Argentino ever repaired for him. On the shelf above his desk rests one of his current assignments: a pair of Crosby’s skates.
He’s midway through a story about those skates and the generational talent who wields them. “He knows what he wants,” Argentino says. “You’ll talk to him and he’ll put something on, and he’ll go, ‘Is it possible that my right boot is slightly [off]?’ He can’t explain it mechanically, but he feels that there’s something different. And then what he’s feeling is right. He feels absolutely everything. Everything. I even did a test on him.” Argentino recounts how Crosby was at a nearby rink for a photoshoot, how his skates had been dropped off for a quick sharpening beforehand. With the ice a little softer that day given the summertime shoot, Argentino made a slight adjustment to No. 87’s usual setup. “I just dropped it by like a [thousandth of an inch],” he says. “Just a little less.” Crosby took the ice, seeming his usual self. Argentino swung by to ask how his gloves were faring — all good. And the helmet — nothing to report.
“I say, ‘How’s the sharpening?’ He goes, ‘Good, but they’re not as sharp as I’m used to.’” Argentino can’t hold back a grin in wholehearted appreciation of a fellow gear-head. “Normally, no one would even notice it. The average skater wouldn’t know. But he had a sense that it was just a little bit off.”
That heightened sense among today’s top-end NHLers — the fact that they notice those tiny differences — is among the most significant contributors to Argentino’s success in the game. While players have long been particular about their gear, the sport today is a different animal.
For one, the equipment industry is nearly unrecognizable from the version that existed 30 or 40 years ago. The business has grown rapidly — both in terms of equipment production and the marketing of the players endorsing it — and increased variety has left players far more attuned to what they like and dislike. “In the old days at training camp, we used to put gloves and all that on a table and guys used to go around, pick up what they wanted,” says Canadiens equipment manager Pierre Gervais. “Now, that’s not how it works — they all have their own specific gloves and pants and companies they work with. It makes things very different than it used to be.” The key changes in the responsibilities of equipment managers like Gervais mirror the changes in the equipment industry as a whole, particularly when it comes to the financials. “My first year in Nashville was 1998. I believe the sticks were $22.75,” says Predators equipment manager Pete Rogers, who first worked with Argentino in the late ‘90s. “Now [it’s] $205 plus tax and shipping … Now, you’re really managing budgets as much as you’re taking care of your players.”
For the best of the best, that gift of control has unleashed an obsession with customizing every aspect of their gear. “Every one of them has their own little idiosyncrasies of what they want, their details,” says Licorish, who now works alongside Argentino at CCM. The Cordonnerie Argentino alum works with San Jose Sharks pivot Joe Thornton, whose specificity goes all the way down to the precise roundedness of his stick’s shaft. “He likes a certain radius on the corners of the shaft, and a certain thicknesses. I’ve had them measured and [if] you give him one and you know it’s elevated or too small, he feels it immediately,” Licorish says. “He puts it in his hands — ‘Nope.’ He knows immediately just by touching it.”
It’s the same for nearly every star around the league, and the details can vary significantly from player to player. “Bergeron will wear one pair of gloves the entire season — [Dion] Phaneuf can go through 25 pairs in a season. John Tavares will start his year off with six pairs, and then [the Maple Leafs] will send me his palms and I’ll re-palm them two at a time,” Argentino explains. “He always wants dry gloves on his hands, so they’ve got them on the dryer. They rotate three pairs for his games, [so] he’ll always have a dry pair on his hands.”
Argentino gives players what a machine can’t — a matching obsession, a perfectionism that mirrors their own approach to the sport. That along with the reassurance of knowing they can simply imagine what they wish their gear could do, how they wish it could feel, and Argentino will know precisely how to alter thread and leather to make it so. He grants ultimate control over the details — not in a pick-your-toppings-and-submit-your-order way, but in fact, the opposite. You tell Argentino how the meal should taste, he’ll worry about the ingredients, amounts and cooking time. “When they finally sign off, ‘That’s perfect,’ then that’s the recipe. Leave it there,” he says with a boisterous clap.
And it truly is left there. The evidence sits pinned to a board right above his desk — a series of weathered, yellow, receipt-like slips of paper. The recipes. Atop the pile is Crosby’s, the specifications for his gloves and skates unchanged since Argentino first wrote them out with the star centreman 15 years ago. Ask what it’s like dealing with McDavid or Ovechkin or any of the others who’ve been on the CCM roster for a while, and Argentino’s answer is the same: “His recipe’s all set.”
Argentino hasn’t just become a key figure for those stars, though. He’s become a magnetic force himself, Licorish says — a master in the shop, drawing people to his door the same way his father did back on Wellington Street.
There’s a story he tells about the ’07 All-Star Game in Dallas, his first. As it goes, a jersey mishap left the hulking, six-foot-nine Zdeno Chara without a properly fitting set of threads for the big game. Argentino got the call and went to work, scrambling to find some blank all-star jerseys, cutting sections off the spares and sewing them onto the bottom of Big Z’s sweater to extend it as much as possible. The last-minute save earned him a colourful nickname from an NHL rep who was there to see his work: The Wolf, after Winston Wolf, the Pulp Fiction character known for cleaning up messes. “If you have a problem that needs to be solved, you call up The Wolf,” Argentino explains.
That ability to consistently deliver, to meet any demand, is rooted in those years on Wellington Street. All you need to do is walk around the corner in Argentino’s CCM workshop to get a clear sense of that. To the left of that mini-Hall-of-Fame nook sits a series of workbenches lined with the very machines that once occupied Cordonnerie Argentino. A small stool, its dark wooden legs chewed up by time and its black leather top far from pristine, sits just underneath — it’s the one John built himself, and used for years back in his shop. Nearby hangs a navy blue work apron, marked with paint, polish and burns marks — it too was brought over from Verdun.
Simply put, though Marco’s moved from the street to the big leagues, working with Hall of Famers amid the glamour of the NHL, the soul of the old shop lives on in his work. Not only as the catalyst for the success that’s come his way, but also as a foundational philosophy that’s now shaped the relationship between one of the biggest gear manufacturers in the sport and the biggest names in the game. And those lessons learned at the shop have begun to impact the future of the industry, too. While he’s long worked on building boundary-pushing prototypes, Marco moved to CCM’s Advanced Innovation team in May, granting him an even greater role in shaping the sport’s future. While the world of hockey gear as a whole continues to sprint forward — with the technology used to produce, repair and assess equipment growing more advanced by the year — the Argentino approach remains steadfast, stubbornly clinging to the way things were done back home, and all the more successful for it.
“This is something that my dad told me,” Marco says. “He said, ‘No matter what you do in life, if you put love in your work, it will always turn to gold.’ I go back to the first time I sharpened my skates, and it brought me all the way to experiencing watching someone win a gold medal, to be able to be at that level. That’s something that I passed on to my kids, too.
“It doesn’t matter what you do — put love in your work, and it’ll turn to gold.”
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