The digital age altered the ways in which people interact with their professional heroes.
It built windows into accessibility through the advent of social media, and the permanently-open door became a viewing point for opportunities to build content.
Anyone with a phone or mobile device gained instantaneous access, and the athletes, celebrities and stars likewise obtained their own ability to respond in real time.
The ability to harness that power emerged as a unique way for hockey to further develop its community axis. A sport widely recognized for its community emotive base transformed into an interconnected universe built by the connections between professional superstars and the next generation. It was a way to give back, and it carried a unique business opportunity.
From land grew TorchPro, a digital website offering unfiltered looks into the off-ice training habits and lives of professional hockey players. The brainchild of former San Jose Sharks captain and current Dallas Stars forward Joe Pavelski and former New Hampshire captain Matt Fornataro, it’s a link for emerging hockey players to meet their icons on a different level while offering a new way to shape the game through a wide, full bodied range of interests.
“My favorite player growing up was Peter Forsberg,” Fornataro said. “To have any sort of access to what kind of shoes the guy wore, I would have been all over it. And so now there’s access that I don’t think has existed. The more consumers that we can bring to this platform and the more athletes that we can get, the more content we can create to spread our message.”
The idea for TorchPro originated from Fornataro and Pavelski, two former teammates with the Waterloo Blackhawks in the USHL. Both went onto play college hockey and reconnected after Fornataro retired in 2016 from a career spent playing overseas. They embarked on a new endeavor with Kompany39, another digital website founded in 2017, that would streamline the concepts of the more widely-used hockey camps for young players.
Kompany39 was the first phase of a rebranding of hockey’s social media because it extended beyond the physical walls of an actual rink, and it built on a roadmap traversed by both players into professional hockey. The recognizable elements harnessed the community feel of the game and touched on the stories less recognizable than simply goals and assists.
“I had retired and was looking for that next mission that I was going to go on,” Fornataro said, “and there was this market and value to be added for both sides (of our company). We wandered a little bit at times, but we learned a lot of key lessons in terms of marketing and social media and content creation and partnerships. All of those things, five years later, made us hungry and green but willing to work really hard.”
“Looking back, I’m glad I left (to play junior hockey) because I always questioned if I should stay or go,” Pavelski said. “I didn’t know a lot of people that had that experience through my hometown and through my inner circle, but I went to school and went to hockey. Practices were a little longer and information was coming at (everyone). That was something I fell in love with, and that’s what TorchPro is trying to create – to share those experiences. There are kids and families that don’t have resources that can turn to us right away and look for knowledge from people that have done it before them.”
That objective is where TorchPro lives and breathes its content. The site touches on a range of experiences by the athletes in order to allow viewers to live their stories, and the wide lens casts a spotlight on their workouts, training and lifestyle. By operating in those different arenas, subscribers can learn from a playbook developed to establish an unprecedented look at the hockey world from more than just YouTube clips of goals and celebrations.
It centralizes and builds a mass presence for athletes at a time when reaching the masses is a critical piece of digital branding. It breaches the limited capacities of a simple camp and shatters the generic concepts of a hockey tutorial video by personalizing the individual’s approach. There are options for viewers who are more drawn to defensemen over forwards or smaller, more agile players over power forwards, and each player’s individualized touch is the hallmark of their reach and a foundational piece for their life after playing the game.
“There are some good things you can use and learn from,” Pavelski said. “The biggest thing is that there’s an understanding that not everything has to be for everyone out there. Your audience that you’re trying to reach is what you can do a lot of good for. I think the cool thing about this platform is that it dives into more than just an Instagram account and there’s a deeper connection with fans. There’s more learning, and I think the stories go into a little bit more than a simple, quick little clip. That’s what we’re trying to drive home to have that connection that goes deeper than others.”
“(People) roll their eyes because they’ve heard me say it so often but the humble gene in hockey held it back from a marketing standpoint for a long time,” Fornataro laughed. “It’s just a mindset of the best people in sports, but a lot of people outside hockey’s bubble don’t know (about the game) because the players are so humble. I think that mindset shifted because it had to, and it’s just the world we live in, but we’re finding a way to do that while authentically building a team and service that we can provide. Every athlete is already a brand, but too many don’t know or aren’t sure how to build it consistently and authentically.
“The younger generation of hockey players grew up with this stuff,” he said, “so that mindset is starting to change, but there’s still a mentality that it takes some education. It’s a great point that not everything needs to be for everyone, but there are 20,000 kids out there who might have never known how someone like Joe Pavelski trained.”
Each athlete works with the company’s full-time employees and more specifically with the production team to introduce strategic branding to an individual person. They build a cross-section of both wants and needs and develop a game plan for publishing content while adhering to the pillars and values of the company. The lessons learned are then applied both retroactively to existing athletes while maintaining a fluid outlook on how to both recruit and enhance the current roster.
“Our production team is a big part of the onboarding and brand-building piece,” Fornataro said. “We use a framework of performance, purpose and person, and we try to really identify how those pillars can fit to athletes that are a little bit different. We’re not trying to put anyone in a box, but we do try to surround them with resources to help them better tell their stories. We feel super fortunate to have our team, and our head of content and production, TL Fielder, has been in the industry for 25-plus years. There’s a definite skill there to make athletes feel comfortable whenever there’s a camera around because we don’t want it to feel forced. But we’re fortunate about the team that we’re building.”
It helped TorchPro gain traction after its rebranding from Kompany39. It recently acquired Morning Blitz, a daily sports newsletter, and began staging its next phase of growth through the professional stars it added. Pavelski anchored the site’s roster from the start, but former Boston University and current Boston Bruins defenseman Charlie McAvoy joined to produce talent alongside another former Terrier, Brandon Yip. Yip played in the NHL but more recently spent time in Germany’s DEL and Russia’s KHL, and he deepened the bench with longtime NHL veterans Mike Green and Riley Sheahan.
But the company proudly determined itself to avoid boxing the game to just the next generation of NHL men’s players when it added Kacey Bellamy, Annie Pankowski and Megan Keller from the United States women’s national team. Bellamy and Keller were both part of 2018’s gold medal team at the Olympics, but all three are part of an equity explosion currently under development in the game’s current generation.
“At the start of this year, we looked at our values and leaned into women’s hockey,” Fornataro said. “Growing women’s hockey is one of our goals because it’s important, and these ladies finally have a place where they can play and be treated like the professionals that they are. Kacey was the first and best athlete we could ever partner with, and she’s so committed and respected by teammates.
“We want to do a lot of really cool things with women because we support them,” he said. “We’re giving them a platform to share some of the stories that oftentimes aren’t told or don’t have the resources. We’ve been to a PWHPA event to capture a bunch of stuff, and we want to share their voice. It’s a big, big thing for us, and we’re excited about that initiative.”