It may not resemble the over-the-top and often outrageous wardrobe of hockey icon Don Cherry, but make no mistake – Ottawa’s Gongshow hockey-inspired clothing lineup is earning its status as a legendary brand in the hockey world all over the globe.
“I co-founded the company with my business partner Craig Kennedy; we played hockey together and saw a void in the marketplace for a lifestyle hockey brand,” explains Ottawa entrepreneur Ger McNamee. “Other sports had their brands, so we thought why can’t hockey have its own clothing brand?”
That novel idea started at a university pub in 2002 when the entrepreneurial pair produced and distributed 24 branded ball caps in celebration of a beer-league hockey championship win. Today, Gongshow’s product lineup includes shoes, t-shirts, chinos, underwear, long sleeve tops and even coats – a complete wardrobe offering for both men and women.
Gongshow – a word used in hockey circles to describe both a crazy fight on the ice and the party after the game – is not just about clothes; it’s a movement to join hockey players from around the globe through the company’s unique clothing, according to McNamee. Gongers, as they are affably known, include numerous NHL players as well as thousands of junior, minor and even beer-league players all over the world.
But the brand’s appeal is not solely its cool factor; it’s functional as well.
“We make clothing that literally fits hockey players – for example our jeans are made bigger in the thighs and behinds to fit all that muscle build up from years of skating,” says McNamee. “Seems funny, but it was a big problem for hockey players to find pants that fit them until we solved it with our jeans, shorts and chinos. All of our apparel is unique in that it’s made in limited quantities. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
While the majority of Gongshow’s sales are generated domestically, exports now account for 20 per cent of the firm’s overall revenue – with an overwhelming majority (15 per cent) of total exports destined to the U.S.
“We export our lifestyle apparel to Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Australia and of course the U.S.,” says McNamee. “Our biggest export market has always been the United States, and we feel it still has a lot of growth left as hockey becomes bigger down there each year.”
The company sells its garments online through its e-commerce store, as well as in 700 stores in Canada, the U.S, Europe and Australia.
Fourteen years in business has been a great education in going global for McNamee, who says among the biggest lessons learned are to take risks but don’t assume you know a market unless you see it, first hand.
“When we first decided to start exporting to Europe about eight years ago, everything was new to us. Working with EDC to insure our shipments allowed us to take risks in exporting our goods that we would have never taken without their guidance and help,” explains McNamee. “Our biggest lesson in going global was understanding that the culture of each market often changes the landscape for how our brand would do.”
When Gongshow first broke into the Swedish market, for example, sales of headwear – the top category in Canada – was extremely slow and left employees scratching their heads as to why.
“I hopped on a flight to Stockholm to walk around for a week and get to know the people and the country’s distinct culture and quickly realized that Swedish people don’t really wear hats unless at the gym or going to the rink,” McNamee adds. “By visiting the market I was able to figure out what went wrong. It taught me to never expand to a country before visiting it first and making a plan based on that unique marketplace.”
The company’s success to date can be attributed to many things, but passion and teamwork stand out.
“After 14 years it’s been a team effort in here from top to bottom. I think for Gongshow, it’s always been about providing a genuine product from the heart. We are all hockey lovers in this office: we eat, sleep and breathe the game,” McNamee says. “If you love what you sell, believe in the product, and there is a demand for your niche, the sky is the limit.”
Reaching for that sky, Gongshow plans to keep practicing so it can score more goals in the global arena and win its end game.
“Our goal for Gongshow is to spread the hockey lifestyle worldwide through our apparel,” McNamee says. “We feel that the more we share our love of the sport, the bigger the game of hockey will be and that’s our ultimate goal and why we come to the office every day.”
You can learn more from Ger McNamee here.