Hockey players know hockey players.

“Knowing and talking hockey is something you can’t fake,” said Max Sieplinga ’06, a former Calvin hockey player and American Collegiate Hockey Association player of the year.

So when you are selling something to hockey coaches and players, the authenticity test comes quickly.

Sieplinga and his team have talked the talk with thousands of teams, pro shops, suppliers and individual customers to grow Howie’s Hockey Tape into a small business wonder.

The business began with Max’s dad as a small online venture (dubbed “Howie’s” for Max’s first name, “Howard”). But coaxed by Calvin business professor Bob Medema and computer science professor David Laverell to use the little company as a case study for class papers and assignments, Sieplinga began to dream bigger and to discover new markets, pitching hockey tape to professional, amateur and college teams.

“Today we provide hockey tape or some other hockey-related product to 19 NHL [professional] teams,” said Sieplinga. “We also have about 85 percent of the AHL [minor league] teams and the same share of the NCAA Division I university team business.”

Gaining professional team contracts is a boon for the business, enabling his sales team, for example, to tell Chicago retail hockey shops that Howie’s supplies the Stanley Cup Champion Blackhawks with tape and skate laces. Doors open.

He noted that the growth in the business—and from college student to business owner—flowed naturally. Sieplinga sold hockey tape full-time in the summers between semesters, and he treated managing Howie’s as a part-time job when he was taking classes.

“I was thinking about getting into real estate development after graduating from Calvin,” said Sieplinga. “But I decided I should go all-in on the hockey tape business and see if this thing had legs.”

Sieplinga made phone call after phone call out of a one-room storage facility on the north side of Grand Rapids—“a computer and a room full of tape”—and gave it his all.

The business has grown each year ever since. He employs nine full-time people, including one in Canada, and partners with Calvin to bring in student interns and summer employees.

He’s moved the company to a larger facility in Grand Rapids and wants to expand his Canadian side of the business.

In addition to tape, Howie’s sells pucks, skate laces, skate sharpening supplies, water bottles, stick wax and branded apparel. A new venture is to expand into selling athletic tape—a product needed in every sport.

“Every hockey team is a family,” said Sieplinga. “If you give personal service and treat people right, the good word will get out quickly. I think that’s been a key element of our story.”

Sieplinga calls his team “a company of Christians” and notes that in a way the young men working with him serve as a men’s faith-based support group as they share the daily issues of life, family and business.

“I know that faith produces the character to guide our customer interactions and relations. People will notice they are treated well and with respect,” he said.

An unexpected bonus has been the positive reaction to the missing-teeth, black-eyed hockey player that is pictured on Howie’s Hockey Tape products. Sales of Howie’s logo products have been brisk.

Sieplinga uses the “Howie’s image” to surprise customers from time to time.

“I like grabbing a local order off the computer and delivering the product to the customer personally, that same day,” he said.

“It is fun to have the customer respond, ‘Wow, are you really the Howie?’ That’s so cool!”