When 3 hockey dads realized the sticks their kids needed didn't exist, they created a business to make them
When Dan Pilling (Marketing ’95) and his wife Lori (Legal and Realtime Reporting ’01) put their 2 boys in minor hockey, they didn’t anticipate the journey ahead of them.
Pilling, a former Ooks hockey player (1994-95), was a coach of his son Nathan’s Novice team (ages 7 and 8). When one of Nathan’s teammates, Jack, outgrew his beginner’s stick, his dad Sean Reily bought the next size up – a junior stick – and cut it to size.
Jack’s game changed immediately – and not for the better. “Passing, shooting, everything had changed,” says Pilling. “Sean knew he had only changed one thing: Jack’s stick.”
Reily went back to the store thinking he’d bought the wrong size, but all junior sticks were the same height. More surprisingly, they were all the same flexibility, which decreases when a stick is cut, affecting a player’s technique.
Seeing the market gap, Pilling, Reily and fellow hockey dad Guillermo Salazar drew on their combined sales and business backgrounds and launched Raven Hockey in 2014 to produce junior hockey sticks with different heights and flexibility. After a recent appearance on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, the Calgary-based company is on the verge of hitting the big time, one independent store at a time.
The importance of being flexible
The 3 hockey dads went into the stick business with little more than the knowledge that there was a problem to be solved and, perhaps, an opportunity at hand. Junior class sticks were the only ones not to offer varying flexibility.
Currently, Pilling is an account manager for Oil States Energy Services but he started in sales with Shaw Communications in 1995. His job was to sell early adopters on the benefits of bandwidth and high-speed internet versus dial-up. The need was real but not well understood.
Now, Pilling sells Raven sticks in a similar way, by focusing on the importance of proper stick flex for young, developing players. “If they have a stick that’s too stiff, they tend to cheat to get the puck in the air,” he explains. “They flick it and don’t really learn to put power into the stick and into a shot.”
Like pulling back on a bow and arrow, flex can make shots harder, faster and more accurate. A “flex rating” refers to how much a stick bends, and should be about half a player’s weight in pounds. For example, it takes 50 pounds of force to bend a 50-flex (or standard junior) stick 1 inch. Cut that stick and bending it requires more force, making it harder for young players to use properly.
“We did a test at one store, and they sold out of 4 dozen sticks in 3 days.”
Raven Hockey researched their concept, refined a prototype with their manufacturer’s help and landed on a model made of carbon, Kevlar, graphite and fiberglass designed for players weighing less than 110 pounds. When they first took their stick to market, Raven chose to sell through independent stores run by hockey-knowledgeable people who would explain the benefits of the sticks.
“We did a test at one store, and they sold out of 4 dozen sticks in 3 days,” Pilling says. When they received similar receptions at several other independent stores for their 20-, 30-, 40- and 50-flex sticks, they knew they were onto something.
Into the Dragons' Den
Apparently, Michael Wekerle, one of the investors on CBC’s Dragons’ Den, thought so too.
Pilling and his partners appeared on the show in October 2016. They came in with considerable success already.
“Our first year, our goal was to sell 600 sticks,” Pilling says. They ended up selling 3,500. In their second year, they moved 7,500 sticks.
To boost production by buying more equipment for their stick factory, they asked for $450,000 in exchange for 20% of the company.
Wekerle countered with $500,000 with a 10% royalty until the full amount is repaid and 10% equity thereafter. Raven accepted.
Pilling says they were thrilled to receive Wekerle’s backing but not just because of the money. “What was more important to us was the exposure from being on Dragons’ Den and the confirmation that yes, this was a huge need in the market that’s been ignored for years and we’re doing it well.”
The episode doubled Raven’s website traffic overnight and tripled the number of new stores interested in carrying the sticks. They’re now in 125 stores throughout North America and even Norway and Korea.
As a result, they’ve yet to dip into Wekerle’s funds.
Imitated and flattered
Raven Hockey has a big year ahead. Lori (pictured at right with Dan), who has worked as Raven’s business manager full time since 2014, admits that things have been hectic since Dragons’ Den. But “you can’t complain when business is good,” she says.
In 2017, by continuing to focus on a growing but sustainable number of independent stores, they anticipate selling upwards of 30,000 sticks.
“We have our goal to get to 200 stores and a road map to get there,” Pilling says, who has no plans yet to join Lori as a full-time Raven staffer. “We feel like we’re on the right path.”
More importantly, they’re thrilled that many young players now use the proper stick, allowing them to focus on playing the game they love to the best of their abilities. In fact, some bigger hockey brands have started producing sticks with lower flex ratings for younger players.
The competition doesn’t worry Pilling; he welcomes it as confirmation of the market demand and further validation that he and his business partners were right. “It’s gratifying,” he says.
“All of us feel a lot of pride in knowing that the junior stick segment in hockey will never be the same because of Raven Hockey sticks.”