By now, nearly two months after the coronavirus outbreak shut down professional sports and leading hockey equipment manufacturer Bauer was inspired to pivot from making skates, sticks and helmets to producing medical-grade face shields for healthcare workers, the company had hoped to look at phasing out production of its new line and get back to its normal operations.
The compassion of Bauer’s workers, many of whom saw the struggles of doctors, nurses and first responders among their family members, and the inventiveness of its designers had allowed the company to respond swiftly to the sudden need for protective equipment. It was accustomed to making visors for NHL players, but producing single-use shields for medical use posed different problems.
Led by Dan Bourgeois, Bauer’s vice president of product innovation, and Wim Fream, senior director of product design and development for sister company Cascade, the project leaped from discussions about ways to help to devising a concept, creating a design, making a certified prototype and then getting it into production in about four days, all the while mindful of Canadian and American regulations governing employees’ safety.
“They’re the real heroes on our team,” said Mary-Kay Messier, vice president of global marketing for Bauer. “They’ve really taken this and led their teams through an extraordinary mission.”
Bauer officials initially were unsure how to get the word out about their new product, which they planned to distribute through the company’s Bauer.com website. Within 48 hours of a French-language media report in Canada about the new product, the company got one million orders. “And we were completely overrun,” said Messier, sister of Hall of Fame center Mark Messier and mother of three hockey players among her four children.
Bauer’s goal was to deliver 2.25 million face shields at cost in the United States and Canada, and it ramped up production at its plants in Blainville, Canada, near Montreal, and Liverpool, N.Y. It expected the production pace to be intense, but it also expected demand eventually would be fulfilled. Rarely has a company so fervently hoped the need for one of its new products would dry up. “We thought we would probably wrap this up at the end of May,” Messier said.
March became April, which bled into early May, and the need for protective equipment remains. But what began as a determined, short-term response to an urgent problem has become an example of the best aspects of human ingenuity and adaptability, one of the few positive souvenirs that can be taken from this prolonged and anxious time.
Working with lacrosse-focused Cascade, Bauer remains on track to keep its promise to deliver those 2.25 million shields, though it was overwhelmed by those early orders and had to direct purchasers to other companies’ websites. “The situation was so desperate when we first started. And that’s hard,” Messier said. “You feel like you’re doing a lot of good but there was just such a dire shortage. These people are risking their lives every day without even a thought and not having the protective equipment they needed.”
Aware it couldn’t solve the problem by itself, Bauer allowed other companies to skip the trial-and-error stage by posting its designs on its website for anyone to adapt. “Which is something you just don’t see in manufacturing,” Messier said.
It’s an example of the mentality that’s part of hockey players’ DNA, the idea that the greater good takes precedence over individual needs or egos. May that never change.
“Companies all over the world, we felt like the collaboration was incredible, and I think the step that we took was really unprecedented to publish all this information and to also help other companies. This is a complete not-for-profit initiative for us. That was never the intention,” Messier said by phone from South Carolina.
“This really brings the analogy of working as a team to the pinnacle. It’s not just sports — these are front-line workers and it’s a life-and-death situation.”
Whenever hockey and other sports return, there surely will be enhanced safety measures and gear for players and fans as well as for team and stadium employees. Come the day the NHL resumes and Bauer once again turns its focus back to making skates, sticks and helmets, the medical shields are likely to remain in the company’s catalog.
“The need for protective equipment isn’t going to go away anytime soon. We’re in discussions to continue to provide the necessary equipment that’s still in shortage continuing forward,” Messier said. “I think we’ll take what we learned from making these medical shields to help citizens and help the hockey community in a safe way with different shields and coverings that are going to be critical in terms of how we come back.
“It’s been one of the most rewarding things, I think, for many people in our company to be able to participate in some small way to make such an impact for all the essential workers.”