Lemieux, Nike go separate ways

The deal made headlines when it was announced in January 2001: Mario Lemieux, who had just returned to the NHL after a three-year absence, would sign a groundbreaking endorsement deal as the signature athlete for Nike brand hockey equipment.

It was a bit of an odd sight at first, one of the greatest players ever to play the game donning the famous -- but still relatively young and unproven in hockey circles -- Nike swoosh. The head-to-toe deal required Lemieux to use customized versions of the company's skates, gloves, stick and helmet for the remainder of his playing career, in exchange for a reported $1 million. Indeed, that figure set a new threshold for on-ice endorsements in professional hockey, and set industry tongues wagging about whether such a deal could make economic sense for Nike.

Now, less than three years later, Lemieux is still playing, but fans will notice he has a different look about him these days. Gone is the distinct Nike Quest helmet he helped the company launch in 2002, and Super Mario's mug is now framed by a lid bearing the logo of one of Nike's staunch competitors, CCM.

In the NHL endorsement game, it's not uncommon for a contracted player to switch sticks if he's in a scoring slump. But if he changes helmets -- one of the highest profile product placement opportunities for manufacturers, with exposure ranging from television highlights to newspaper photos to hockey cards -- it usually means something's up. And in the Lemieux-Nike case, something is definitely up, as the parties have quitely ended the arrangement.

The contract expired on Sept. 30, 2003.

"Nike Hockey enjoyed a (long) relationship with Mario, and we thank him for his support and valuable feedback on product development at a time when we were relatively new to the sport," said Bauer Nike Hockey Inc., the brand's parent firm, in a statement prepared exclusively for ESPN.com.

"At this time, Nike Hockey has made the decision to focus resources on product design and innovation, along with the signing of younger athletes who represent the future of the game and the Nike brand going forward.

"We wish Mario the best of luck in the future."

Nike declined to divulge further details, other than to say the company chose not to renew the contract.

One reason could have been that Nike felt it wasn't getting full bang for its buck. Prior to this season, Lemieux played in a total of just 134 of a possible 210 regular-season games since his return on Dec. 27, 2001. Not including the 2002 Winter Olympics and 18 playoff games in 2000-01, Nike's per game payout amounted to $7,500, instead of $4,800 had he played in every game -- if the $1 million endorsement figure is accurate.

That's an oversimplification of the deal since such contracts usually involve off-ice promotions and other activities. Lemieux was instrumental in helping the company launch new skates, as well. He also helped Nike raise money for charity by donating and signing game-worn skates from Canada's gold medal performance at Salt Lake City. Moreover, the deal was originally intended to have Lemieux endorse other Nike products, including golf and cross-training equipment and apparel, elements that never really materialized.

Such a contract dissolution also proves how delicate the endorsement game can be. "Player endorsements are a funny business," said one industry source who asked not to be named. "It's great when you have someone move into your product, but it's quite another thing when they decide to drop it."

Nike's loss, then, is another company's gain. Enter CCM, one of the brands (along with Koho and Jofa) owned by The Hockey Company, based out of Montreal. The manufacturer declined to comment on a new arrangement with Lemieux, but all signs indicate that a deal is in the works.

Besides wearing the company's helmet, Lemieux has a close personal relationship with John Pagotto, a vice president of The Hockey Company. Pagotto was the man largely credited with luring Lemieux to Nike in the first place, when Pagotto was vice president of brand management at Bauer Nike. Pagotto has since returned to The Hockey Company, causing observers in the industry to speculate that it was only a matter of time before Lemieux followed.

"It goes to show you that relationships go a long way sometimes," Pagotto said at the Nike Lemieux signing in 2001, referring to the friendship that dated back to when the player was 15 years old. Lemieux had worn Koho and Jofa brand gear for most of his career to that point. "Mario and I go back a long way."

Hull's Mission still in planning stages
Back in August we wrote about another significant endorsement deal, that between Brett Hull and Mission Hockey. The Detroit Red Wings sniper had just signed a contract to become the Santa Ana, Calif.-based company's highest profile athlete, agreeing to use its gloves, skates and sticks for two years.

Two weeks into the 2003-04 season, however, Hull is still using the Graf skates and Easton sticks (the latter blacked out so as to not show the Easton logo) that he has preferred over the past few seasons.

Is the deal on the rocks already, an example of the famously finicky Hull being too difficult to please?

Not so, insists John Kirk, Mission's vice president of pro team services.

"There's no problem with the deal at all. We're making some alterations to his sticks and skates, but it's been a great work in progress," he said.

Kirk said the company is a little behind schedule, with Hull not using its product when the NHL season is already underway.

"But we've actually been able to learn some things from Brett just by what we've been trying to do for him, and to get him the proper equipment that he needs," he added.

Not all breakage is bad
So far in this 2003-04 season, the NHL's latest challenge appears to be a rash of slashing incidents.

Washington Capitals' center Jeff Halpern, for example, was fined $1,000 for a wicked, two-handed slash to the wrist of Gary Roberts in an Oct. 13 game in Toronto. Roberts tossed his stick into the air and fell to the ice in animated agony. Witnesses to the incident, or fans who saw it on sports highlights afterwards, may have been shocked to learn Roberts didn't suffer a fracture.

Some may call it pure luck, but the league's stick suppliers would suggest that Roberts escaped more serious injury because of a simple calculation in physics.

"In layman's terms, if you've got a stick that weighs half what another stick does, it's like taking a half-swing at a guy instead of a full swing, or swinging half as fast," says Ned Goldsmith, vice president of hockey at Easton, the company largely credited with creating the one-piece composite stick.

The theory implies that had Halpern, who was using an Easton Synergy one-piece composite, whacked Roberts just as hard with a wooden stick, Roberts would almost certainly have suffered a serious injury.

There have been plenty of other examples of slashing or crosschecking incidents so far this season, Goldsmith said, where the blow delivered by a composite stick was actually a blessing in disguise, compared to the damage that would be inflicted by a wooden model.

"That's exactly why you don't want to have heavy, 'indestructo' sticks," he said, noting that the sticks are designed to give at a certain pressure as a matter of safety.

During last year's playoffs, stick makers came under fire for perceived breakage problems with the one-piece composites. These space age, high tech weapons break too easily and at the wrong time, TV broadcasters and NHL GMs groaned, especially since they cost four times as much as wooden sticks and are supposed to last a lot longer. The manufacturers, meanwhile, claimed they were merely delivering what their customers -- the players -- wanted: lightweight sticks that allowed them to shoot faster, if not harder.

Most stick suppliers make the one-piece composite sticks out of a combination of carbon, graphite and Kevlar materials.

"As this whole discussion has occurred, the manufacturers have found themselves a little trapped, between players saying 'I want it lighter,' and the teams saying they don't want the sticks to break so much," Goldsmith said.

Easton is working on the next-generation Synergy, which could further reduce the weight from the current level of 460 grams to between 400 and 425 grams. "We're putting the final touches on new technologies which are allowing us to achieve the desire of the players, which is for lighter weight and increased durability."

The technology involves use of materials commonly found in the wings of fighter jets, Goldsmith said.

Easton wouldn't divulge the names of the three "elite level" NHL endorsers testing the product in game action, but the company lists Steve Yzerman, Mike Modano, Jeremy Roenick, Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic in their stable. The new sticks, which are marked like existing models, are targeted for release to the hockey trade early in 2004, and to consumers next spring.

Wayne Karl is a freelance writer based in Toronto. He can be reached at wkarl@rogers.com.