Iconic Kenesky goalie gear reborn and back in the NHL
Goalies flocking to new chest protectors being made in London, Ont.
Joel Hulsman couldn't help but cry when he watched the Washington Capitals' first road game of this season.
Hulsman is an old school hockey guy, so tears aren't commonplace. But he couldn't hold them back when he saw the distinctive stars stitched on goalie Braden Holtby's chest protector, peeking through the team's white away jersey.
That chest protector was a Kenesky — and just like that, a Hamilton icon that is intrinsically tied to history of the NHL and hockey in Canada returned to the world's biggest stage.
"I was in awe. I couldn't believe it," said Hulsman, the current co-owner of the Kenesky brand.
"We were back."
Holtby is just one of a host of NHL stars like Pekka Rinne, Mike Smith, Craig Anderson and Roberto Luongo who are all now wearing Kenesky chest protectors.
'When we stopped making equipment back in 92, it kind of broke my heart. But now we have a whole new enthusiasm."- Joel Hulsman
Hulsman, alongside co-owner and designer Mike Howard and designer Dave Wilcox, have resurrected the historic brand and are outfitting the league's titans, capitalizing on an NHL rule change that had many goalies scrambling to find new gear that worked.
And it's all happening out of a small, London, Ont.-based shop — a business forged out of a longtime friendship between people who have lived and breathed hockey their whole lives.
"I just wanted to carry on the legacy," Hulsman said.
A century-long history
The original Kenesky's store stood at the corner of Barton Street and Wellington Street for just over 100 years before it was demolished back in 2016.
For years, Kenesky's shaped every level of hockey in Canada all the way up to the NHL. In the late 60s and early 70s, every single goalie pad worn in the NHL was made by the store's then-owner, Emil "Pops" Kenesky.
The shop first opened in 1915, two years before the NHL was born — but it wasn't until 1924 that Pops reinvented the hockey pad. His pads were wider, and controlled rebounds better. For the next 50 years, they were the go-to pads for goalies, made in secrecy in the second floor of the shop. No one except a Kenesky could go upstairs where he worked.
Pops died in 1975, and his sons took over the family business, including the secret to making the pads. But when newer materials surfaced, Kenesky's couldn't keep up. The company's last pads were made unceremoniously in 1992, and after that, the store became almost solely a retail outlet for hockey gear. Shortly after Pop's son Jack died in 2005, Hulsman, who was already a co-owner with Pete Richards, bought the last of the family's shares of the store.
The shop remained a Hamilton fixture for the sale of hockey equipment until it closed at the end of 2015 — but it had been a long time since an NHLer had worn Kenesky pads, by then.
It wasn't long after the store closed that Howard, a longtime friend, reached out to Hulsman. He was also a lifer in the industry, having designed gear for brands like Vaughn and Eagle for the last 35 years.
He knew he wanted to partner with Hulsman because of the weight of the Kenesky name.
"Joel said he wanted to partner up with someone who was innovative, and had the same essence that Pops did from back in his day, because he was innovative as well," Howard said.
The pair linked up at the right time, as the opportunity to fill a niche quickly came calling.
Seizing a golden opportunity
This season, all NHL netminders are sporting a smaller chest protector as the league continues the process of shrinking equipment, following recent size reductions for goalie pads and pants.
The aim, like the other streamlined goalie gear, was to boost scoring while at the same time rewarding athletic ability in the crease by eliminating unnecessary padding that wasn't protecting goalies, but instead simply helping them block pucks.
In short, a 190-pound goalie and a 240-pound goalie would no longer look the same on the ice.
Many goalies, Howard says, found the companies that were previously making their chest protectors simply shrank their pre-existing designs, and that didn't work. They were stiff, or left areas open to feel the brunt of an impact — which is a bad thing when throwing yourself in front of a 120 km/h Zdeno Chara slapshot.
Kenesky's, however, built a design specifically suited to the new regulations. Seeing as Howard has outfitted over 1,500 goalies in his decades of work, he was well suited to the task.
"We figured we would use the chest protector to get our foot in the door … because we knew every goalie this season was going to have to switch with the new rules that were coming out," he said.
Now, with so many goaltenders trying out their chest protectors, the pair is hoping goalies will start to adopt some of the company's other offerings, like their pads, gloves and blockers.
"It just keeps the old man's legacy going … that's always been so important to me," Hulsman said. "When we stopped making equipment back in 92, it kind of broke my heart.
"But now we have a whole new enthusiasm."
With files from the Canadian Press