Estonian hockey sticks swing into world arena

  • 2002-01-17
  • Kairi Kurm
TALLINN - Estonia's Viisnurk signaled its determination to stay on top by signing an agreement last month with the International Ice Hockey Federation allowing it to supply hockey sticks to participants at the Olympic games and the world championship.

"We might see Latvian Gregorijs Pantelejevs and Finnish female players using our ice-hockey sticks as soon as the coming Olympic games in Salt Lake City," enthused Siim Talmar, a marketing manager at the company which is already one of the world's leading suppliers of cross country skis.

Although Viisnurk's Maxx hockey sticks have been used at international games before they have been disguised under a different brand name or covered with a black label.

It cost Viisnurk 500,000 kroons ($30,000) to join the federation's supplier pool and to win the right to display the IIHF logo on its products for two seasons, said Talmar.

Vladimir Makrov, general secretary of the Estonian Ice Hockey Association, said that though expensive, membership would help Viisnurk make its mark.

" We felt it was the right time for us to use this as a marketing tool. It should help us increase sales to hundreds of thousands of sticks in the coming two or three years."

Viisnurk produced 40,000 hockey sticks in 2000 and more still in 2001 although Makrov declined to be drawn on the precise figure ahead of the official release of the publicly listed company's results.

In addition to producing its own brand products Viisnurk currently supplies sticks bearing the brand names of other companies to two goalkeepers in the United States' National Hockey League.

With contracts to supply the National Hockey League costing a hefty $20,000 per season Viisnurk has yet to throw its own brand names into that ring.

"We can pay that sum and find some NHL players to sponsor, but it is not our aim this season," said Talmar, who presented the company's MAXX sticks at a "Let's play hockey" fair last week in Las Vegas, California.

Such events should prompt NHL club members to start using MAXX hockey sticks in future, he said.

Talmar has great expectations for the giant U.S. and the Canadian markets, which buy half of the world's hockey sticks and themselves produce such famous sticks as Easton, Koho and Sherwood.

The company started exporting its sticks to the United States at the end of last year. Its other export markets include Latvia, Finland, Sweden, Israel, Italy and Japan, with only 5 percent of output being sold in Estonia.

Viisnur decided to start producing hockey sticks three years ago when it purchased the equipment of a bankrupt Finnish hockey stick manufacturer and retained that company's employees.

It has proved a wise move, said Talmar.

"Demand for skis depends on the amount of snow, but hockey is mostly an indoor game so demand fluctuates less," he explained.

Viisnurk is a world leader in cross-country ski production, producing every fifth ski sold, or 300,000 skis in 2000.

By contrast its share of the world's hockey stick market is a mere 0.4 percent.

The company produces 20 models of off-the-peg ice-hockey stick, ranging in price from 150 kroons to 800 kroons, but also makes sticks to the specifications of particular players and teams.

Ice hockey is becoming increasingly popular in Estonia and the country now boasts three ordinary ice rinks and six ice palaces.

But even with another five ice-halls due to open this year competitive pressures mean Viisnurk has no choice but to go global.

"There are 200 ice palaces in Finland. The situation here would be okay if we had 20 to 25," said Talmar.

The Estonian Ice Hockey Association has 1,200 members and 27 member clubs.

According to Makrov hockey is played mostly by Russian speakers but is becoming more popular among ethnically Estonian children.