When Red Wings prospect Jonatan Berggren had visitors from back home in Sweden last season, he took them to a rather unusual place: a warehouse in Kentwood, Mich., just southeast of Grand Rapids.
Berggren was playing his first year in North America, for the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins. But he had represented Sweden internationally for several years, and when he would compete in hockey tournaments in Europe, he grew familiar with the smiling, tooth-missing hockey player on the emblem for Howies Hockey Tape.
It’s a “classic logo,” Berggren said, for a company he previously had no idea was based in his new city.
Go to a hockey rink, and you’re liable to see the brand’s toothy-grinning logo on water bottles on the bench. Search the internet for “hockey tape” and it’s the first result on Google. Its Instagram account has more than a quarter-million followers, a seemingly absurd number for a company that started out selling bulk orders of simple white, black and clear tape for hockey sticks and shin pads. But it’s no more absurd than a high-level NHL prospect taking his visiting mother and brother to the company’s warehouse.
A lot about the rise of Howies feels improbable, but it now supplies tape to 24 of the NHL’s 32 teams, alongside the heavy-hitters in the tape world, such as Canadian-based Renfrew. Five other NHL teams purchase non-tape Howies items, including skate laces, sharpening wheels and stick wax.
As athletic equipment goes, hockey tape — used on the blades and handles of sticks for grip, puck control and preventing damage to the stick — is among the most unheralded in the industry. Certainly, it’s more removed from the public consciousness than the thousand-dollar pairs of skates and $300 sticks the sport’s elite players cycle through.
Still, players and equipment managers can be awfully particular about those $5 rolls of tape.
“Our team in Tampa is predominantly Howies,” said Colten Wilson, head equipment manager 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?’” said Vegas Golden Knights head equipment manager Chris Davidson-Adams.
Davidson-Adams grew up in Michigan and has known about the company dating back to its early days, seeing his former boss — Griffins equipment manager Brad Thompson — use their products as an early adopter in Grand Rapids. But when he gets requests like that, or sees a dad and kids walking near the Golden Knights’ practice rink carrying a Howies water bottle and skate soakers, the magnitude of Howies’ growth starts to hit him.
“It’s crazy to me, things like that, and how they’ve grown,” Davidson-Adams said. “But to me — how they’ve grown, how big of a company — but yet they keep it (feeling) small.”
Tape on the shelves at the Howies Hockey Tape warehouse in Grand Rapids. (Max Bultman / The Athletic)
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