This holiday season will be one where the staff of Gunzo’s Hockey Headquarters, the longtime Morton Grove equipment emporium at 6730 W. Dempster St., will have to work as hard as a player killing a penalty in overtime.
While business is constant with north suburban and even Wisconsin youth hockey leagues, purchases from casual hockey fans have been crimped by the National Hockey League lockout that shows no signs of ending. As a result, there won’t be a holiday hiring bump at Gunzo’s while several regular staffers could have their hours cut. Purchasing expenses will be watched carefully.
But the local outlet of the four-store Gunzo’s, founded in 1963 by Wally “Gunzo” Humenjuk, the 1961 Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks’ backup goalie, will keep its lights on and doors open even while the NHL has gone dark. The onset of winter and youth- and recreational-league seasons mean there are always skates, sticks, helmets and jerseys to sell.
At its present 4,700-square-foot location for five years after operating in a smaller store at 5616 Dempster, Gunzo’s will be buoyed by regular clientele that keep it running through the stoppage of hockey at its highest level.
“We have a lot of clients that have been long-term, repeat business,” said store manager Carson Little. “At this business, we cater to local teams. It’s an attraction, not just within the state line.”
Youth players will play locally. But recreational players may drive an hour or more to play. One example was Sue O’Connor, a female goalie and a resident of Northwest Indiana, who commuted through some of the country’s worst traffic to play at the nearby Skatium in Skokie. Thus the demand for hockey accessories will always be there.
Stanley Cup boosted sales
But make no mistake about it, Gunzo’s got a boost from the Hawks’ first Stanley Cup in 49 years in 2010. That smoothed over the dip from the poor economy, pushing jersey sales of the most popular Hawks. Captain Jonathan Toews’ huge photo adorns the side of Gunzo’s facing Dempster.
“Two years ago, soft goods were big for us because for the previous 10 years (of a poor Hawks team), people did not have hockey jerseys,” said Vic Zysman, operations manager of the Gunzo’s chain, who works out of the Morton Grove store several days a week.
“We have seen an uptick (in recent years) in men’s and women’s hockey participation,” Zysman said. “We saw a couple of articles where golf has lost a little bit of its appeal, and some (adults) are trying to get into a more physical, or active sports. We’ve definitely seen an uptick with more adult play. But unfortunately with the lockout, that all drops off because that buzz is gone.”
The warm, even hot (86 degrees in March) winter early this year also cut into sales.
Skates, sticks constant sellers
But Gunzo’s still handles its constants. Skates and sticks are constant sellers. Hottest new seller is the Vapor Apx stick, said assistant manager Ryan Kennedy.
“Usually when a new stick comes out, it’s a big seller because companies hype them up,” he said.
Gunzo’s also can tailor its line to local interests. The Hawks’ rise in 2010 prompted the store to stock the NHL teams’ apparel even better than big sporting-goods chains. Vintage jerseys for Stan Mikita (No. 21), Bobby Hull (No. 9) and Tony Esposito (No. 35), which hang from the rafters at Gunzo’s, are regular sellers. The store staff also can customize a request for a vintage jersey of, say, a Denis Savard or Al Secord.
Gunzo’s also has interesting touches. The store features four blue stadium-style folding seats for customers to try on skates. Underneath the seats are typical shoe-store devices that measure foot sizes.
Little and Kennedy also counsel youth purchasers of helmets with all the publicity on concussions, especially in hockey, football and baseball.
“People come in wanting the safest helmet for their child,” Kennedy said. At the same time, helmets sell based on the specific fit.
“As kind of a smaller-type company, we take pride in making sure our employees are adequately trained, not just by myself, but also representatives of our vendors on how the helmet is supposed to fit,” Zysman said. “The truth is, the safest isn’t necessarily the most expensive helmet.”