Kanata-based firm carves out niche with apparel designed to prevent lacerations in athletes, high-risk workers

While the NHL season is just beginning, an Ottawa-based manufacturer of safety products for hockey and other high-risk endeavours is already celebrating its own Stanley Cup of merchandising deals.

BASE360, which makes high-tech shirts, shorts, socks and gloves designed to prevent lacerations to hockey players, speed skaters and law enforcement officials, announced earlier this month it has inked a contract to sell its products at Canadian Tire outlets starting this season.

The deal, which company co-founder Rolf Loyens says is in “the higher six figures,” puts BASE360’s BODYARMOUR brand on shelves at hundreds of the giant sporting goods retailer’s stores across the country. It’s a huge opportunity for Mr. Loyens’ company, which was launched about eight years ago and employs just over a dozen people, including three at its Kanata headquarters.

As any successful athlete knows, there is a price for glory, and it’s no different for a small business struggling to land its first major client. Mr. Loyens says the Canadian Tire deal is the culmination of years of sweat, toil and frustration.

“That also, as a business, comes with certain challenges as well,” he explains, rhyming off hurdles that included the logistics of delivering products to that many stores, not to mention securing financing for the purchase orders.

“You have to be very creative in trying to make sure that you can finance and deliver … there’s really no wiggle room. That’s what makes it exciting to be an entrepreneur. It’s also the stressful part of being an entrepreneur.”

BASE360’s line of lightweight, cut-resistant hockey apparel is designed to be worn under regular equipment to prevent lacerations from skate blades, which account for almost half of all injuries in the sport, Mr. Loyens says. Particularly vulnerable areas of the body – the wrists, calves and Achilles tendons, for example – are covered in fabric reinforced with high-strength Kevlar and Dyneema, synthetic materials commonly used in body armour, to guard against potentially serious, even career-jeopardizing, cuts.

The firm partnered with Garmatex Technologies, a Vancouver-based manufacturer of scientifically engineered fabrics, to create the protective hockey wear. The Business Development Bank of Canada has provided cash for technology development and marketing, but it’s “nowhere near what is required,” Mr. Loyens says.

Still, he’s grateful for the BDC’s help. It’s been a long road to get to this point, he notes, with more than its share of obstacles, including legal challenges from major sports equipment manufacturers over patents and trademarks.

Through it all, Mr. Loyens and his partners remained undaunted.

“It’s that proverbial David vs. Goliath struggle,” he says. “We’re going to continue to fight the fight.”

A manager at Coca-Cola and Telus before launching BASE360, Mr. Loyens came up with the idea with his friend and former business partner Ross Angus. Mr. Angus, a longtime minor hockey coach in Nepean, witnessed one of his players get cut by an errant skate blade and figured there had to be a way to reduce the risk of such an injury.

“It happens frequently – more frequently than people realize,” Mr. Loyens says. “To me, these are preventable injuries. It’s just a matter of trying to find a solution. We decided, ‘You know what? There’s nothing out there. Let’s figure out how to do it.’ There was a lot of trial and error. What we started off with eight years ago is a totally different product than what it is today. People aren’t going to wear it if it’s heavy, it’s bulky, it doesn’t breathe, it’s not comfortable.”

Tragically, Mr. Angus never lived to see his vision fully come to fruition. The father of three, an elevator technician by trade, died three years ago this month when he fell down an elevator shaft at a west Ottawa construction site.

He continues to inspire his close buddy every day.

“It was both of our dreams to see this,” Mr. Loyens says, smiling at the thought of his friend. “Part of it is doing it for his memory.”

Mario Demers, a former director of operations at Med-Eng Systems, came on board three years ago, and networking led them to the partnership with Garmatex a year later.

The firm began branching out beyond hockey when Mr. Loyens’ son switched sports to speed skating. Now, BASE360 is also making clothing for law enforcement officials, with plans to design products for industrial workers next.

For now, Mr. Loyens says, he and his partners are happy to compete in the shadow of the bigger players in the sports apparel game, but that could change.

“We’re not ready to exit because now we’re seeing the growth in our business,” he says. “Having said that, you always have to be open to the marketplace. There’s been a lot of consolidation of companies in hockey and the reality is the big boys have a lot of marketing dollars behind them and distribution (networks). And distribution is key to any kind of retail business, so … if there’s an opportunity to work with one of the larger companies, then we’re happy to listen.

“At the end of the day, we may not be the biggest company, but we’re the best at what we do.”