When Red Wings prospect Jonatan Berggren had guests from again house in Sweden final season, he took them to a slightly uncommon place: a warehouse in Kentwood, Mich., simply southeast of Grand Rapids.

Berggren was enjoying his first 12 months in North America, for the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins. But he had represented Sweden internationally for a number of years, and when he would compete in hockey tournaments in Europe, he grew acquainted with the smiling, tooth-missing hockey participant on the logo for Howies Hockey Tape.

It’s a “classic logo,” Berggren mentioned, for an organization he beforehand had no concept was primarily based in his new metropolis.

Go to a hockey rink, and also you’re liable to see the model’s toothy-grinning logo on water bottles on the bench. Search the web for “hockey tape” and it’s the primary outcome on Google. Its Instagram account has greater than a quarter-million followers, a seemingly absurd quantity for an organization that started off promoting bulk orders of straightforward white, black and clear tape for hockey sticks and shin pads. But it’s no extra absurd than a high-level NHL prospect taking his visiting mom and brother to the corporate’s warehouse.

Rather a lot concerning the rise of Howies feels unbelievable, however it now provides tape to 24 of the NHL’s 32 groups, alongside the heavy-hitters within the tape world, reminiscent of Canadian-based Renfrew. Five different NHL groups buy non-tape Howies gadgets, together with skate laces, sharpening wheels and stick wax.

As athletic gear goes, hockey tape — used on the blades and handles of sticks for grip, puck management and stopping injury to the stick — is among the many most unheralded within the business. Certainly, it’s extra faraway from the general public consciousness than the thousand-dollar pairs of skates and $300 sticks the game’s elite gamers cycle by means of.

Still, gamers and gear managers could be awfully explicit about these $5 rolls of tape.

“Our team in Tampa is predominantly Howies,” mentioned Colten Wilson, head gear supervisor for the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning. “We have a guy who (says): ‘Thick, black, Howies tape.’ Like if he re-tapes his stick on the bench, that’s what he says. ‘Thick. Black. Howies.’ He makes sure that we know he wants the Howies. Or guys (will say), ‘Thin. White. Howies.’ It’s specific when they request it.”

“We had one of our players over (at the) World Championships, and he asked, ‘Hey, can you send me some Howies laces?’” mentioned Vegas Golden Knights head gear supervisor Chris Davidson-Adams.

Davidson-Adams grew up in Michigan and has identified concerning the firm relationship again to its early days, seeing his former boss — Griffins gear supervisor Brad Thompson — use their merchandise as an early adopter in Grand Rapids. But when he will get requests like that, or sees a dad and youngsters strolling close to the Golden Knights’ follow rink carrying a Howies water bottle and skate soakers, the magnitude of Howies’ progress begins to hit him.

“It’s crazy to me, things like that, and how they’ve grown,” Davidson-Adams mentioned. “But to me — how they’ve grown, how big of a company — but yet they keep it (feeling) small.”

Tape on the cabinets on the Howies Hockey Tape warehouse in Grand Rapids. (Max Bultman / The Athletic)

Howard Max Sieplinga nonetheless appears like a hockey participant. Even dressed enterprise informal in a darkish Calvin University quarter zip, his athletic construct and mop of sunshine brown hair give him away.

He bears no resemblance, nonetheless, to the black-eyed caricature that has made his identify — Howie — right into a staple of the hockey world.

His father, Harry Mark, first had the thought to start out promoting tape in bulk on-line again in 2002, on the facet of his pictures enterprise. Through Max’s early years of faculty, it largely stayed as a barebones web site promoting three colours of tape in bulk, and not using a distinctive recipe.

But as Max neared commencement, he had some concepts of his personal. First, as a small-school faculty participant, he believed they may develop a tape that was of higher high quality than what was accessible. Second, already armed with a brand that makes a straightforward impression, he felt they may really market tape. And, having simply completed learning enterprise at Calvin, he thought they may do it whereas taking “amazing care of people.”

His dad inspired him to purchase the enterprise and make it his personal — for “cheap,” Sieplinga mentioned — and he obliged, beginning out as a one-man operation. He made the gross sales calls. He packed the orders. He did no matter “marketing” there was on the time.

And he did all of it out of the again of his dad’s pictures studio within the metropolis, although certainly not with out hiccups. Sieplinga remembers one early sale, the place the shopper on the opposite finish of the cellphone advised him he was going to ship him a “P.O.” He hid his confusion, telling the shopper, “OK, go ahead, send me that P.O.,” however had no clue what the initials meant. He ran across the nook to ask his dad and finally realized it was fairly easy: a purchase order order.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Sieplinga says now.

But it was by means of that studying curve that he picked up what have develop into core tenets of the Howies id. In the early days, when the corporate tousled an order, Sieplinga’s dad gave him a stunning little bit of suggestions: That’s superior, Max.

You don’t see it like that proper now; that prices you some cash, he would say. But each time you screw up an order, that’s a chance to make a buyer for all times.

“Not only were we going to make this right,” Sieplinga mentioned. “You’re going to be in a better spot after we make this right than where you were before.”

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Howard Max Sieplinga, the proprietor of Howies hockey tape, at his desk in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Max Bultman / The Athletic)

If that was one form of alternative, one other got here when Sieplinga walked into a neighborhood locker room one evening, prepared to affix a brand new beer league group.

He had lately graduated and didn’t know lots of the gamers on the group. On the primary day, he walked in and plopped down his gear as his new teammates began asking him what he did for a dwelling.

When he advised them he had “this little hockey tape deal,” the person sitting subsequent to him perked up: “Well, I’m the equipment guy for the Griffins!”

That man was Brad Thompson, and he was about to develop into a significant ally for Howies. Not solely did he comply with strive the tape — bringing it into the Griffins locker room — the 2 grew to become mates, and Thompson would come to counsel concepts for brand new merchandise or methods to enhance present ones.

Once the tape was within the second-highest league in North America, it was simpler for it to maintain spreading, an avenue to get it into the arms of opposing groups and, crucially, gamers who have been on their approach to the NHL.

“Next thing you know,” Thompson mentioned, “the visiting team’s using it, the guys are starting to steal it, take it home with them. … So then it just grew from there.”

The tape itself, Sieplinga says, is differentiated by its tensile energy — which means it doesn’t rip simply and holds up effectively when coming in touch with skates, pucks and different sticks. Its poly-cotton mix makes it naturally immune to water, he mentioned, whereas Thompson famous he thinks Howies tape comes off the blade simpler when re-taping.

But if the possibility assembly with Thompson was a little bit of early luck in rising the corporate, Sieplinga nonetheless needed to create loads of his personal luck. In the early days, he relied merely on a big calendar, stuffed every day with the lists of calls he’d must make to professional outlets he noticed as potential prospects.

“It was so hard back then because nobody knew what Howies was,” Sieplinga mentioned. “Like you’d pick up the phone and be like, ‘Hey, this is Howie calling from Howies Hockey Tape.’ (And) they’d never heard of Howies Hockey Tape, they didn’t know who you were. We had a lot of people just literally hang up, and I’d be like, ‘OK, I’ll call you in two weeks.’ And I would.”

Sieplinga had been serving to out by teaching at Calvin after graduating, hiring children from the group part-time to pack orders. But as he realized he might need one thing huge on his arms, he wanted extra assist. After operating into faculty buddy Dave Visser at an unsightly Christmas sweater social gathering, Sieplinga acknowledged that Visser had a method with folks and thought he might be useful on the gross sales facet of the enterprise.

Visser doesn’t come off like a salesman. At work, he wears a hoodie that matches his Midwestern disposition, and he appears as concerned about no matter it’s important to say as something he might have been planning to let you know. As Howies director of promoting Josh VanderWel places it, for those who spend 10 minutes in a room with him, “you’re going to walk out of there going, ‘Man, me and Dave are close buddies.’”

“What I like about Dave is he doesn’t want to just sell you a roll of tape,” mentioned Jared Mycyk, the top gear supervisor for the AHL’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. “He wants to see how your day-to-day is in your locker room, he wants to see how you are as a person. It’s a very personal relationship beyond just selling a roll of tape.”

At an early conference the corporate attended, Sieplinga, Visser and one other co-worker have been out and about after they seen the New York Islanders gear workers. And Visser wasn’t afraid to strike up a dialog.

“That was really our first NHL team that gave us a chance, other than bits and pieces of other teams,” Sieplinga mentioned. “Because as you have guys move up from Grand Rapids, or even the NCAA, (they bring the tape with them), they’ve been using it, so we would see like one or two case orders come out of different teams for certain players. But (at that point) it was never like, ‘OK, we’re going to make this a mainstay in our locker room.’”

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(Courtesy of Howies Hockey Tape)

Visser and Sieplinga have been already mates, and the tales from the corporate’s youth sound like what you’d think about beginning a small enterprise with a buddy proper out of faculty. They would prank co-workers with pretend orders, requesting they be hand-delivered. In truth, when the corporate obtained a big on-the-spot order from the Boston Bruins sooner or later, Sieplinga thought the identical factor have to be occurring to him.

“I thought for sure it was a joke,” he mentioned.

By now, in fact, they’ve grown — and grown up — significantly. They’ve graduated from the again of that small photograph studio, the place, to get to the lavatory, you’d need to single-file between circumstances of tape … solely to search out extra bins of tape within the lavatory. Their headquarters is now 20,000 sq. ft of warehouse and workplace area.

But there’s nonetheless a looseness and camaraderie to the workplace. The partitions are adorned with jerseys, and at cubicles you’ll discover pucks, mini-pennants and rally towels. You’ll additionally discover a trophy from the Labatt Blue U.P. Pond Hockey Championship, the place the workplace group received the 21-and-over Bronze Division this 12 months. They have Tuesday morning pick-up video games earlier than work at a close-by rink, and one of many prizes for his or her worker of the month — which they name “beauty of the month” — is a throwback Jofa helmet within the firm’s signature yellow.


(Courtesy of Howies Hockey Tape)

There’s extra to do now than within the early days, after they had a sheet of pretend ice out again to shoot pucks on breaks, however having a enjoyable office was necessary to Sieplinga from the very starting, even when the magnitude of the corporate now calls for much more work.

Howies now has greater than 20 full-time staff within the Grand Rapids workplace, plus about seven interns and a small department in Canada. Its ambitions are starting to develop even bigger.

Already, it has begun branching into higher-priced mushy items, reminiscent of hockey baggage and group attire, which, sarcastically, forces the corporate to make use of its various brand (a stylized H made of tape) to maintain the deal with the group logos.

Biggest of all, although, is a foray Howies started about 5 years in the past, right into a extra normal athletic tape.

If hockey continues to be a distinct segment market, athletic tape is considerably bigger. Sieplinga says it’s “always been hard for (him) to judge a market size,” and proper now, the enterprise makes up solely about 10 to fifteen % of the corporate’s whole enterprise. But he has a sneaking suspicion the athletic tape enterprise may sometime be 10 instances the scale of the hockey operation — which, itself, he thinks will continue to grow. Already, Howies counts Big Ten colleges reminiscent of Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State, in addition to the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, amongst its prospects.

“It’s kind of fun because we get to relive what we did with the hockey tape thing,” Sieplinga mentioned.

During the pandemic — a highly-tense time for a sporting items firm — the enterprise led Howies to an sudden life raft. With provide shortages for brown paper lunch baggage, a faculty athletic coach in Utah (who additionally dealt with meals service) was in a bind planning lunches when he seen the Howies catalog included ice baggage that might be repurposed to package deal faculty lunches in a pinch.

He referred to as, positioned a considerable order for the baggage, and within the course of gave the Howies workers an enormous concept at a time when the corporate’s core buyer base had been functionally eradicated. Howies began calling different districts, too, pitching the identical idea and telling them it’d do every little thing it may to ensure that they had lunch baggage. And it did.

The firm isn’t trying to get into the lunch-bag enterprise, thoughts you. But after these faculty districts helped maintain Howies in a vital second, it hasn’t stopped supplying some for the districts that need them, even now that hockey is again up and operating.

“We’re just trying to take really good care of the customers (we have),” Sieplinga mentioned.

As a lot as Howie’s has grown and altered in 20 years, that early ethos has discovered a approach to stick — and it doesn’t appear to be accidentally.

For all of the framed jerseys that may be present in Howies’ workplace, a few of them items from big-time groups, a a lot smaller merchandise tells you ways the corporate has managed to scale up a lot with out dropping its roots.

Inside a easy black body is a typed letter dated August 2019, from a then-79-year-old man in St. Clair Shores, Mich., whom Sieplinga has by no means met. It’s a easy congratulations from a long-time buyer, grateful for the freebies the workers had thrown into his orders over time, and overjoyed at seeing how far they’d come.

In it, the person advised his personal hockey tales, wrote of the “friendliness” he at all times skilled in coping with Howie, and talked about that he even offered some tape to his personal hockey buddies on the facet. He concluded that perhaps he “should not be so taken aback as to how you have built and expanded a once small company into a prosperous and larger one.”

“Maybe one day,” the person wrote towards the top, “you’ll be even more famous than you already are?”

(Top photograph courtesy of Howies Hockey Tape)

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