Heroes of the pandemic: How COVID-19 pivoted Bauer Hockey from skate-maker to medical face shiel manufacturer

Bauer is charging six dollars a shield, a break-even price point. Any profits accrued from sales will be earmarked for charity

Dan Bourgeois is a Montreal Canadiens fan and an engineer by profession. Among his talents is dreaming up great, new, hockey-gear related ideas, which is something he and his design team do a lot of at Bauer Hockey’s innovation centre north of Montreal. The place is outfitted with a mock-NHL dressing room and a rink for testing products, primarily skates, to ensure in pre-pandemic days that the 75 per cent of NHL players, including Patrick Kane, David Pastrnak, and 19 of the Canadiens’ 22 players with Bauer blades on their feet, were happy, little hockey players.

“Pre-COVID-19, our facility was for research and development and for manufacturing skates for pro players,” says Bourgeois, vice president of product innovation. “Any pro player you see wearing a Bauer skate, we make it in Quebec.”

Guy Lafleur wore Bauer skates. Eric Lindros was a Bauer guy. The billionaire Bronfman family owned the company for a spell, the billionaire Desmarais family owns it now. Hockey, in this country, has been played on Bauer skates ever since the company’s founding in Kitchener, Ont. in 1927. (Bobby Bauer, a Bruins great, who married into the Bauer skate-making clan, put the company on the NHL map in the 1930s.)

“We asked ourselves, what can we make as quickly as possible”

But when the NHL temporarily closed for business on March 12, 2020, Bourgeois and his product design buddies were faced with a profound problem, that is — what do we now?

“The night the NHL closed, our business went from super-successful to zero,” Bourgeois says. A few days later, a colleague in New York mentioned a call had gone out to the private sector to get involved in the fight against COVID-19, a refrain repeated north of the border by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. By then, Bourgeois was under quarantine at home in Montreal after a trip to the States, and already brainstorming ideas — via videoconferencing and document-sharing gizmos — with his team about what they could do to help.

Several ideas were floated, debated and, ultimately, put aside as a plan to make medical-grade face shields for frontline healthcare workers took shape. Bauer, along with all those skates, makes NHL visors. A visor stops sticks and pucks. A well-executed face shield stops viruses. Four prototypes later, each of which was tested by a doctor whose kid works as a designer for the company, and the Bauer facial protector was born.

Bourgeois sent a detailed power point pitch to people in government thereafter saying, in effect: “This is what we can do.” Alas, nobody responded, at least not at first. So Bourgeois tipped off a reporter at RDS, the French-language sports broadcaster/website. An article was published and, voila, the orders started pouring in, a tally that has topped 700,000 units and shows no signs of slowing. (The Quebec government has ordered 300,000 face shields from Bauer).

“Our team had about five different concepts, and we think all might be needed by medical workers eventually,” Bourgeois says. “But we asked ourselves, what can we make as quickly as possible — and face protectors was a core competency.”

Bauer is charging six dollars a shield, a break-even price point, says Bourgeois. Any profits accrued from sales will be earmarked for charity. The company has also posted its design specifications online, where anyone can steal them, while Bourgeois has been remote-networking at a furious pace with other potential manufacturers since the 80-person innovation complex north of Montreal, and its typically lacrosse-gear focused sister operation in Liverpool, N.Y., won’t be able to meet what has become a global demand.

On Tuesday, Bourgeois was on the factory floor for the first time in two weeks. Quarantine was over for the innovation guy, and he wanted to check in with the troops. Instead of working on a conveyor belt model, each employee will have their own workstation to accommodate social distancing. Safety checks and last-minute training was being done. Production starts Wednesday. Bourgeois’s day one goal is to make 1,000 face shields. By day three, he hopes to have doubled production, and double it every couple days going forward until 30,000 units is the norm. As for skate-making, well, the higher-ups at Bauer have told Bourgeois to keep going with his project, until every need has been met.

“We feel very proud around here,” he says. “When we started doing this, nobody had told us to jump on it. But we had a vision. We saw a problem. We wanted to help.”

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