It all goes back to when Billy and Roger Christian were two young brothers at seven and eight years old. Both had skated on the frozen Warroad River since they were able to walk, and they spent their adult lives dominating the competition throughout northern Minnesota.
Not too many years later, they found themselves representing the United States against the Soviet Union at the 1960 Winter Olympics. The U.S., then strongly at odds with the Soviet Union in the Cold War, trailed by one goal.
Billy Christian received a pass from his brother, Roger Christian and hockey legend Tommy Williams to score the game-winning goal. The brothers eventually returned to Warroad with the first ice hockey gold medals in U.S. history.
Hal Bakke, a brother-in-law, eventually brought up the idea for all three to create custom American hockey sticks. They realized they could probably capitalize on this opportunity, as their name had become incredibly popular following the improbable win versus the Soviet Union.
The company quickly became a success. In fact, its success grew so quickly another plant was built in Warroad in 1969. If you were a child interested in hockey in that area, you always played with your Christian Brothers ash hockey stick.
The popularity of the hockey sticks grew immensely for a second time when Billy’s son, Dave Christian, helped lead USA’s 1980 Olympic team to an astonishing victory over the Soviet Union. Referred to as the “Miracle on Ice,” the victory was determined by Sports Illustrated to be the single greatest moment in sports in the 20th century. The U.S. went on to defeat Finland in the final round of the Olympics and take home the gold medal.
Unfortunately, things always change, and they changed in a negative way for the Christian brothers in the 1990s. Increased competition from large retailers and a shift from wooden hockey sticks to composite materials hurt the company’s sales. It also relied on the goodwill of hockey stars to endorse its sticks, but now players were looking for lucrative endorsement contracts that were unaffordable for the small company.
Many of its sales also were made in Canada, and when the exchange rate between the Canadian and American currencies plummeted, so did the company’s profit margins.
And, as time drew farther away from the 1964 and 1980 victories, the notoriety of all three Christians faded too.
Eventually, in 2002, brothers Roger and Christian sold the business because they could no longer compete with larger Canadian companies who could produce a similar product for a lower price. The purchaser, the Platinum Group, stayed in business for just 10 more months, when it finally went bankrupt in the summer of 2003.
But, the story doesn’t end there. Harrow Sports, a company based in Denver, purchased the plant and reopened it in the fall of 2003. Harrow planned to avoid lucrative endorsement deals and instead targeted high-profile hockey stars who preferred wooden sticks.
Harrow eventually ran into problems and was unable to make Christian Brothers, Inc. a success. A conglomerate of hockey aficionados and one NHL player purchased rights to the company and moved its operations to nearby Roseau, where it is still struggling to rebuild its business.
-Dan "The Wisconsin Hockey Fan"
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