Entrepreneur scores with adult hockey
MHL Hockey helps old-timers by administering leagues and letting players focus on the game

Six years ago Louis Martin was like many old-timers' hockey captains. He handled administration, phoned spares and collected money from players to pay league fees.

"I started playing late in life and just loved it," said Martin, president of MHL Hockey Inc. "But when I compared how much we were paying league operators, with what it cost to rent ice, I realized that there was good business opportunity."

At first, Martin's ambitions were modest. He began running a two-team scrimmage every Saturday for friends at the Dorval Arena, collecting a bit more than what ice cost so he could play for free.

But during the next few years Martin's league quickly grew into a four, eight and then a 40-team operation. His big break came in 1998 with the opening of Sportsplexe 4 Glaces Pierrefonds. The four-rink arena was hungry for customers and management gave Martin favorable terms on a five-year rental agreement.

Today, MHL Hockey, which he operates with partner Tim Colby boasts 90 teams in its fall schedule, spread among ten divisions grouped by player caliber. Teams pay approximately $6,400 per season and are guaranteed between 29 and 38 games depending on how far they go in the playoffs. Another 50 teams play in summer divisions. In all, MHL takes in close to $700,000 a year in revenues. But it's a lot of work.

"Team captains complain about how they have to baby-sit a dozen players," Martin said. "That's nothing. I have to baby-sit 90 babysitters. That's a lot of phone calls and E-mails to return each week just to handle routine things."

According to one industry expert who has been watching Martin operate, MHL Hockey has tapped into a valuable market.

"They definitely provide a valuable service," said Christian, Doiron, sales manager at Sportsplexe 4 Glaces Pierrefonds. "People love to play hockey, but as they get older they are less interested in league administration. MHL Hockey takes care of all of that."

Running a garage league is highly complex, especially when the number of teams increases and scheduling commitments and requests have to be balanced out.

"Many players play on teams in other divisions and they want us to make sure their games don't overlap," Martin said. "But the more requests you get the more complicated it all becomes."

The league has nine computers to help compile statistics, handle accounting and service the company's Web-site.

According to Martin, MHL Hockey's growth can be attributed to renewed interest among adults who are returning to the sport they played as kids.

This trend runs in stark contrast to the long-term decline in Quebec youth hockey arising from an aging population and changing immigrant mix that favors countries where the sport is less popular.

While adult hockey participation statistics are hard to come by, anecdotal evidence is that interest in the sport has increased, especially in the MHL hockey's western Montreal target market. During recent years several new ice surfaces have opened and it's relatively hard for teams to book time at peak hours and on weekends.

But opinions differ. "It is growing," agreed Doiron. "But not as fast as at the end of the 1980s."

Despite MHL Hockey's quick ascent, during which annual revenues double from $350,000 to about $700,000 in just five years, Martin and Colby are not finished.

They are currently testing a system that will enable them to videotape games and broadcast on-line. Players would be offered DVD copies after the game.

The other big challenge on the horizon is the re-negotiation of the lease with Sportsplexe 4 Glaces Pierrefonds, which comes up for renewal this year. But Martin is not worried.

"We've had a good run here and we are their biggest customer," Martin said. "But we both know we are in this together. We need (Sportsplexe 4 Glaces Pierrefonds) as badly as they need us."


Correction: In last week's management column, Garderie Academie ABC's annual revenues were listed at $2.5 million. They are in fact $552,000.

Photo caption: Louis Martin and Tim Colby, of MHL Hockey turned their love for the sport into a business. Their league includes 90 teams that play in the fall season and 50 in the summer.


Sidebar: Beer, boys and business

A close look at adult hockey gives a bird's eye view as to how old boys networks are formed and reinforced. By most accounts, beer, boys and business are inextricably linked to the sport, combining to create powerful relationships between participants. And although those ties often turn into business relationships, the process is subtle.

"Business is almost never discussed in the dressing room," said Mike Babineau, a marketing consultant and veteran of countless ball and ice hockey teams. "But hockey players are competitive and form strong bonds with other team members, especially if they've been together a while."

The ties formed on the ice are often strengthened off-ice, lubricated by the inevitable post game beer, which at Sportsplexe 4 Glaces Pierrefonds, is served to players directly in their dressing rooms. Gradually ties turn into friendship and then into referrals and leads.

"I once played on a team with a mechanic who opened a garage," said Babineau. "Today, years later, many of the team members still go to visit this guy, even if his place is far out of the way."

Babineau has closed numerous deals over the years as a result of his hockey contacts, including a recent consulting gig with equipment maker NJM/CLI, whose president, Michel Lapierre, he got to know by playing in a pharmaceutical industry league.

But according to Babineau, the most valuable business benefit he's gotten from hockey involvement has been the wisdom acquired from meeting senior people in a variety of industries.

Despite the usefulness of hockey networks, they're still mostly for men.

"There are many fantastic women hockey players and believe me, we'd love to have them," Babineau said. "But the girls mostly end up on their own teams in their own leagues."


Fact Box:
Company Name: MHL Hockey Inc.
Web-site: www.mhl-hockey.com
Founded: 1998
Products: Manages adult hockey leagues
Offices: Pierrefonds
Number of employees: 3
Sales: Approximately $700,000
Phone #: 514-620-3933






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