TORONTO — As if its arrival triggered our release from gravity’s pull, the COVID-19 pandemic has left us suspended. But while much of life in North America is floating at half-speed, awaiting a return to normalcy, on the front lines of the fight against the virus’s impact, the feeling is every bit the opposite.
An already tense effort to manage the rising number of confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in Canada and the United States has been intensified by increasingly desperate calls from front-line medical personnel for the protective equipment needed to safely do their jobs.
And amid those growing calls for support, the hockey world has offered an unlikely reply.
In Blainville, Que., at Bauer Hockey’s research and development centre in late March, engineers from the hockey equipment manufacturer and its sister company Cascade, based out of Liverpool, N.Y., first mulled the potential of reworking the production of items like helmets and visors into face shields for front-line workers. It took just four days to produce a prototype, bring in medical professionals to test it out, get it certified and begin bringing units off the line.
On March 26, the company announced it had been authorized to move ahead with supplying medical personnel, triggering an immediate flood of demand.
“We were completely overwhelmed within 48 hours, with orders for over a million units,” says Mary-Kay Messier, Bauer’s vice-president of global marketing. “So, we’ve ramped up our manufacturing capacity to full right now — between the two facilities, they’re bringing off 8,000 units a day, 4,000 in each facility.”
But even producing tens of thousands of face shields per week, it became immediately clear that one company doing their part simply wasn’t enough; that a larger, coordinated effort would be needed, with messages of gratitude from those they’ve equipped outweighed by the ever-growing pile of requests.
“I have really mixed emotions around that,” Messier says of the response she’s seen from front-line workers so far. “Part of it is really proud — proud of our team, from hearing so many grateful comments from front-line workers. … On the other side, sometimes I’m devastated, because we are already at capacity.
“…It’s devastating to think about people not having what they need in this crisis.”
So, Bauer opened their doors. They released the designs and supplier information for their face shields to the public, hoping other companies would pick up the cause. In doing so, they’ve helped spur a wave of production from equipment companies across North America, each enabled to turn the lights back on after they were dimmed by the sports world grinding to a halt, to join the effort to equip those risking their own health to provide care for others.
“It was part of our mission to inspire other companies — we’re obviously not a big enough company to address what’s happening globally, but if we can inspire many other companies to really think creatively about how they can contribute, if every single small, medium and large company picked up an oar and started rowing, the collective effort becomes pretty significant,” says Messier. “And I think that’s what we’re seeing here.”
Much like their initial announcement, the response was thunderous, with companies of all sizes and capabilities reaching out to see if they could offer a gear or two to help turn the larger machine.
“We’ve had our people in Liverpool and in Blainville working around the clock to try to connect some of these companies together that may not be able to do all the manufacturing, but they can provide certain services or parts,” says Messier. “Maybe they can provide components, or they can set up an assembly line. So, there’s a lot of work being done there, thinking about the collective mission to just manufacture as many units as possible.”
One of the companies to hear that call and join the cause was Sparx Hockey, a skate-sharpening machine manufacturer out of Massachusetts.
Originally investigating the viability of creating masks with the machinery they had on hand — a far taller task, from a regulatory standpoint — the company shifted focus after seeing Bauer wade into the fray.
“One of our employees sent me a text with a picture of Bauer’s social media post, that they were going to be making shields,” Sparx Hockey CEO Russ Layton recalls, “Our guy wrote back immediately, ‘We can do this.’”
That was Monday morning. By Monday night, they were all-in on the effort to create face shields. By Wednesday, Layton and Co. were back in the office preparing for production — that turnaround time the result of Bauer’s willingness to help them get involved as quickly as possible.
“We reached out to Bauer, they were fantastic — Bauer and Cascade — in terms of sharing what they had learned so far,” says Layton. “So, we began sourcing all the materials, doing our designs, prototyping, and that’s how we launched into it, just kind of both feet in from everyone in the company.”
Sparx’s situation is a microcosm of what’s beginning to happen across the hockey world — the early goings of a mutually beneficial relationship that’s helping companies forced to shut down in the wake of the pandemic’s impact get back to work, while helping fill a dire need for those mired in the effort to fight COVID-19.
“We furloughed about 70 per cent of our workforce the day we were told that we had to shut down our operation,” Layton says. “As the founder of the company, and someone that’s been working for over five years to build this brand and this company and the family that we have working on our products, it was incredibly painful to me to have everything that we’ve spent all this time building come screeching to a halt.”
Signing on to aid in the effort to equip medical personnel has meant a staged plan to bring all of Sparx’s furloughed employees back to work. And it’s continued that chain reaction that began in Blainville — while Layton’s company was reaching out to suppliers about certain aspects of the shield’s construction, they wound up bringing another manufacturer out of the dark to supply Sparx with one of the few materials they didn’t already have at their disposal.
The ability to remain afloat while hockey as a whole remains paused is the only added bonus in their minds on top of simply wanting to do their part, as the company is making no profit off of the shields, charging only the cost of labour and materials required to make them — as is the case for Bauer.
“We’ve been able to bring people back to work and help them maintain some financial stability,” says Messier of the situation at Bauer, who had also ramped down manufacturing and distribution when the NHL paused its season. “And I think other companies are feeling that as well. To furlough or send so many employees home is a devastating thing, so to bring them back in a way that makes such a meaningful impact — it’s one thing to be able to work, but to be able to work with such purpose, I just can’t really stress the impact it’s had on the morale.
“…But certainly, you know, profit in this type of endeavour is not a consideration — it’s just really about what we can do to help.”
Layton echoes the same sentiment, and has similarly been enlightened as to the immense need for that help. Estimating Sparx will be able to produce at least 2,000 shields per day — potentially up to 3,000 daily — he’s seen a similar flood of demand already, from different types of front-line workers, different cities and different countries.
“We launched at about 7 p.m. [the first night] and by the morning we had demand for over 25,000 shields,” Layton says. “…It’s really very heartwarming and kind of puts a lump in your throat when you read the orders coming in. We get to see the orders one by one as they come in, and they’re police departments, they’re fire departments, they’re funeral homes, they’re obviously hospitals — it’s amazing how widespread this is. You know, there are orders from California, Detroit, a lot of orders actually from Canada. We even got a gigantic order from Sweden last night.
“It’s about prioritizing the medical professionals that are on the front lines, so we have to take our time and make sure that the customers who are purchasing these are the people that we should prioritize — we have a team working on that as well. But we’re going to just work as hard and as productive as we can, to make sure we can make as many shields as we can to support this effort.”
Already adding thousands of needed pieces of medical gear to the supply chain on a daily basis, this wave of support from the hockey community towards the fight against COVID-19 is only continuing to grow.
Vaughn Hockey, also among the first equipment companies to get involved — when they were approached by local EMS in late March to produce 18,000 gowns — has similarly been able to put a significant portion of their staff back to work by lending their expertise to the cause.
They’re now looking into diversifying their approach beyond making gowns, potentially following a similar path as Bauer and Sparx.
“We put feelers out for the face shields — I think we could handle those, we’ve got some laser-cutting abilities. We’ve got the foams, the velcroes, the elastics, so we put feelers out,” says Kevin Collins, Vaughn Hockey’s vice-president of manufacturing. “Facemasks, it really depends on materials — we’re not really well-versed on the materials they use. We’d really just need someone who’s in that field to provide the supplier, manufacturer — once we get our hands on those things, they’re really simple items to produce.
“We’ve got the capacity, so if anybody’s out there listening, hopefully they’ll throw it our way and we can help out where we can.”
Meanwhile, other major players in the equipment industry continue to join the fray each passing week as well. CCM — whose similarly had their workflow paused along with the rest of the industry — has had meetings to discuss how best to contribute to the effort to equip front-line workers, says senior technician and prototype fabricator Marco Argentino, and are currently working through a number of ideas to determine where they can make the most impact. New Balance — the parent company of hockey gear manufacturer Warrior — has shifted focus at their American facilities to work on developing facemasks for the medical community, too.
The move to action across the hockey world has been rapid and, for those on the outside, likely wholly unexpected. It was only three weeks ago that the NHL pressed pause on its 2019-20 season after all, a move that seemed more likely to shut down all hockey-related businesses for the foreseeable future while more pressing matters were dealt with.
“If you told me a month ago that my entire operation would be producing medical face shields to protect the front line of our healthcare system against a global pandemic, I would’ve just thought you were crazy,” says Layton. “But, I mean, we did it. And we did it really fast.”
Taking a step back, perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the hockey community has stepped up as it has, and without delay, says Messier. It’s simply part of the DNA of the sport, in her view.
“It really doesn’t surprise me, because we see so many great things in hockey — I truly believe it is unique among all other sports in terms of the connectedness of the community, the culture, the desire and passion to help,” she says. “If you think about Humboldt, you think about how the entire hockey community came together to support those families and that community.
“So, from that perspective, when I think about people within the game of hockey … it doesn’t surprise me that hockey would come together and put their own agendas aside for this collective mission.”
All it takes is asking around others involved in the sport to hear that sentiment confirmed. “We’re a pretty tight-knit community,” says Vaughn’s Collins. “…We all know what each other’s forte is and we all stick to what we do best, and I think we just all get together and understand in a time of need, we’re all involved in this.” Adds CCM’s Argentino, “People are becoming less centred on themselves and more centred on community. And you can see that there’s a desire of, ‘How can I help? How can I step out of what I normally do to help what’s in front of us, this big thing that’s affecting us, worldwide?’ It moves people.”
The hope is that it continues to do so, says Messier — to move, to inspire, with this effort to provide support only in its earliest stages.
“Even though we’ve made strides, and I think things are improving, it’s not enough,” she says. “There’s just so much work to be done.”