01/04/2015 06:00 EST | Updated 03/06/2015 05:59 EST

Kenesky's, a Hamilton hockey icon, turns 100 in a changed city and sport

Joel Hulsman says he's thinking of offering 5-cent skate sharpening once a month to celebrate the 100th year of Kenesky Sports & Cycle. It's not just to give back to the community. It's also to gain a bit of name recognition in Hamilton.

Forty years ago, the thought that Kenesky's would need a gimmicky sale to raise its profile would have been unheard of. For half a century they were the destination for National Hockey League goalies.

Between 1969 and 1971, the corner store at Barton and Wellington streets made every single goalie pad worn in the NHL. The wait for a coveted set of leather pads filled with deer hair made by Emil "Pops" Kenesky was over a year. Many still waited, because a set of Kenesky's on a goalie’s shins told the hockey world he had made it.

Now, more than 20 years after the last set of Kenesky pads were made in the second-floor workshop above the shop, Kenesky's is trying to compete. Not with just the big box stores, but also for online shoppers who turn to Kenesky's for advice but then buy online, in a sport that has become increasingly expensive.

The city around Kenesky's has changed, too.

"Kids on the Mountain don't know Kenesky Sports," Hulsman said from the store Friday afternoon.

Visitors to the store are steady, even midday on a weekday. Many come to talk hockey, this week turning to the ongoing IIHF World Junior tournament wrapping up in Toronto, which boasts a Kenesky's regular.

Darnell Nurse, a Hamilton native on Team Canada's junior squad who was also drafted by the Edmonton Oilers, is a customer. Another member of Hamilton's hockey royalty, goalie Ray Emery, was even a Kenesky employee — a teacher at the Kenesky Goalie School in Burlington. For three summers, when he was in the American Hockey league, Emery stayed at Hulsman's house while he taught, and even brought the Stanley Cup by the shop in 2013 after winning it with the Chicago Blackhawks.

Go-to goalie pads made in secrecy

The Kenesky store opened in 1915. But it wasn't until 1924, during a losing skid by goalie Jake Forbes of the then-Hamilton Tigers of the NHL, when Pops Kenesky reinvented the hockey pad. His pads were wider and controlled rebounds better. For the next 50 years, they were the go-to pads for goalies, made in secrecy in the second floor. No one except a Kenesky could go upstairs where Pops worked.

Pops, originally a harness maker, died in 1975. His sons took over the family business, including the secret to making the pads, but when newer materials surfaced, the Kenesky's never adapted. Their last pads were made in 1992, unceremoniously. Shortly after Jack Kenesky died in 2005, Hulsman, who was already a co-owner with Kenesky and Pete Richards, bought the last Kenesky share of the store.

That's not to say the family business stopped there. A visit Friday afternoon demonstrated quite the opposite.

Between talking hockey, Hulsman fitted a boy with a helmet. He talked a pair of parents out of buying a bigger set of pads for their rookie goalie with a leaky five-hole in the butterfly.

"Look at your hips," Hulsman advised. It was a move one might not expect from a salesman, but was part of the reason Kenesky has been in business for a century.

Hulsman insists it already costs too much to play hockey, part of what is killing hockey in Hamilton's lower city.

"It's dying because it's too much money… Price of ice time, your sweaters, your referrers, time commitment," Hulsman said.

'You deal with the big box stores, you deal with the internet'

For its 100th year, Hulsman is hosting a celebrity golf tournament on July 15 at Knollwood Golf Club, and will have specials year-round. He's toyed with the idea of a $1 skate-sharpen day weekly, or a 5-cent sharpen day once a month, but said he'll decide by February what the official deal will be. He still, of course, has a business to run.

"Let's see if we can do another 100 (years)," Hulsman said in the second floor of the store, next to a wall of signatures from hockey players who passed through the shop. "We'll see what happens… You deal with the big box stores, you deal with the internet, all the things you weren't dealing with back in the '70s, '80s and '90s."

No matter what, some of the store's history will remain in Hamilton. The wall of signatures will head to the Hamilton Sports Hall of Fame when the store shuts down. Hulsman's favourite is a note from Ken Dryden that said Kenesky's "made what we always dreamed of wearing." 

As a collector, Hulsman keeps his eyes peeled for Kenesky's memorabilia. He said there is a pair of never-worn Pops-made pads for sale he's been eyeing, but he wouldn't say the price.

"I can't tell you that," Hulsman said. "We'll see if I can afford to get them."