Canadian Tire’s split from Hockey Canada highlights the evolution of the brand


Retailer sees itself as the embodiment of national values ​​that must also keep up with the times, strategist says

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The rush of sponsors who fled Hockey Canada last week was a resounding demonstration of the value corporations place on hockey, the most popular of the country’s two national sports.

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As the negative press surrounding Hockey Canada’s handling of sexual assault allegations grew, the list of famous companies seeking to create distance grew longer and longer: Bank of Nova Scotia, Canada’s third-largest bank; Telus Corp., the country’s third-largest telecommunications provider; Tim Hortons of Restaurant Brands International Inc., the ubiquitous coffee and donut chain; Esso, the gasoline retailer of Imperial Oil Ltd.; Empire Co. Ltd.’s Sobeys, one of the country’s largest grocers; and General Motors Co.’s Chevrolet were all part of the chorus of warnings.

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However, one big name sponsor sang louder than the others. While most companies hedged their bets on Hockey Canada by « suspending » funding or insisting that their sponsorship money could only be used to support women’s teams, Canadian Tire Corp., the supplier centenarian of skates and hockey sticks, stood out by making a clean break, declaring that he was severing all ties with Hockey Canada.

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“In our view, Hockey Canada continues to resist significant change and we can no longer move forward with confidence,” Senior Vice President of Communications Jane Shaw said in a statement Oct. 6.

Canadian Tire CEO Greg Hicks could have stayed with the peloton, hitting the pause button, waiting for the storm to pass, then getting back to work with Hockey Canada, the organization responsible for assembling the national teams that attract millions of viewers each time they play on television. Games.

A woman walks out of a Canadian Tire store in Toronto.
A woman walks out of a Canadian Tire store in Toronto. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

But that’s not what he did. The decision to go harder-line gave a glimpse of how one of Canada’s biggest retailers has evolved beyond its men’s store stereotype, said Lisa Hutcheson, sales consultant and strategist at detail. A company that « is part of the cultural fabric of Canada » appears to have taken that responsibility seriously, accepting that while it sees itself as an embodiment of national values, it must also keep pace, Hutcheson said.

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“They’ve made a real effort to get past that stereotype of the guy who buys tires and sporting goods and really focused on how to appeal to female customers,” Hutcheson said. « With a branded goal of ‘making life in Canada better’, this directly conflicts with supporting an organization that has some not-so-good things right now. »

Heritage company

Canadian Tire arguably had more at stake than other major Hockey Canada sponsors, given its deeply intertwined relationship with the sport, said retail analyst and author Bruce Winder. “Canadian Tire and hockey are synonymous,” Winder said. « When you think of Canadian Tire, you think of hockey and vice versa. »

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Canadian Tire began selling sports equipment in 1935 and went full steam ahead into hockey in the 2010s.

When former CEO Michael Medline bought high-end equipment retailer Pro Hockey Life for $85 million in 2012, he described hockey as a « legacy business » that would underpin his strategy to become « the authority in sport in Canada from a retail perspective.

A year earlier, Medline had purchased Foranzi Group Ltd., owner of sporting goods chains SportChek and Atmosphere. And in 2010, he signed a five-year deal with the National Hockey League to be the league’s Official Sporting Goods Retailer and an Official Partner of All-Star Games and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The company also launched the Canadian Tire Hockey School, a series of NHL athlete-led camps for young players.

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Participants at the Canadian Tire Hockey School in Ottawa in 2010.
Participants at the Canadian Tire Hockey School in Ottawa in 2010. Photo by Darren Brown/Ottawa Sun Archive

In 2013, he partnered with the National Olympic and Paralympic Committees. That same year, Canadian Tire purchased the naming rights to the Ottawa Senators arena.

All of those hockey ties meant Canadian Tire risked being tarnished by the fallout from the Hockey Canada controversy, Winder said. Along with severing ties with Hockey Canada, Canadian Tire announced it would support Respect Group Inc., the group co-founded by former professional player Sheldon Kennedy to prevent bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination .

« Canadian Tire had to come out first and condemn it because (hockey) is such an important part of their business and their DNA, » Winder said. « If they don’t, they risk losing this whole franchise. »

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« To take a position »

Canadian Tire’s stock price has plunged 29% since peaking in May, adding pressure on Hicks to get it right. The company managed to boost sales in its latest quarter, but profits slumped amid the fastest inflation in four decades and a shift in consumer spending habits towards online shopping from physical stores.

So, in deciding how to respond to the fallout from Hockey Canada, the company likely also considered the growing popularity of the sport among girls and women. In 2020, there were nearly 102,000 female players, a 30 per cent increase from 2008, according to Hockey Canada data, while male and male participation plateaued.

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It is particularly important for the retailer to maintain its status as a guardian of Canadian values ​​and a positive relationship with the sport that most Canadians identify with, as this identity is what differentiates the company from competitors such as Walmart Inc. and Inc., says Winder. And since it’s trying to expand its consumer base to include more women — offering furniture, decor and homewares — an organization that doesn’t seem to side with women who have experienced sexual violence is practically radioactive, he added.

Recently, the company centered its focus on “making life better in Canada” and unveiled an investment of more than $3 billion to improve its online and in-store operations. It’s done relatively well during the pandemic, posting year-over-year growth in 2020 and 2021, and Hutcheson said the company doesn’t want to let the scandal stunt its growth.

« (Canadian Tire) is taking a stand that this is not who we are and who we want to be associated with, » Hutcheson said. « It makes it crystal clear what their brand is. »

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