This week’s story has a little bit of everything… I have been lucky enough to call Nick my friend for several years now and he is one of my favorite people to see at any hockey rink. 99% of the time he has a smile on his face and finds a way to make everyone laugh, he is such a great guy to be around. Nick was the first ever Revision Hockey Employee once upon a time, then moved onto to other companies and jobs in the industry. Along his professional journey Nick found himself on a personal journey that wasn’t very easy to deal with at times, especially in an industry driven by testosterone and “locker room talk.” I have had the pleasure of sharing some amazing stories already, but Nick baring his soul so eloquently is definitely one of my favorite so far. Please enjoy the story of my friend Nick Dowling, in his own words.
Be Passionate. Be True To Yourself. Never Give Up.
As with any kid growing up in the 90’s in Southern California, I am a product of the “Gretzky Boom”. I distinctly remember my first introduction to hockey was at my Grandparent’s house where they were holding a Stanley Cup watch party with friends and family: 1993 Stanley Cup Final, Kings vs. Habs. I was drawn to the television watching Gretzky, Robitaille, Kurri, Blake and other future Hall of Famers battle it out on the biggest stage and come up short. I think it was my first real sense of experiencing disappointment as my nine-year-old brain absorbed the heartache and dejection being let out from 30+ adults wallowing in the Habs’ Cup win.
For the previous couple years, I had played baseball but hated every minute of it. My only lasting memories were sitting in the outfield picking grass, literally, and seeing how high I could throw my glove in the air. With no passion or interest in the game, to say I was bad would be an understatement, but the coaches HAD to put me in somewhere. So, outfield it was, where there was no chance of the ball ever getting near me.
Thankfully after watching that Kings game I was now a hockey fan and I begged my parents to let me play hockey. They signed me up for a beginner summer league at Dave’s California Skate — the local roller skating rink down the street from our house. Wood-lacquered floors, felt walls, disco lights, arcade games, gum-ball machines, etc. I loved everything about it. I played every day in our cul-de-sac and eventually had enough neighborhood kids playing that we could make teams and have competitive games.
There was just one problem, it was still the middle of baseball season. Ugh. I hated going to baseball practices and games, which further made me stand out on the field [with my lack of interest and skill-set]. Thinking back, I feel bad for my parents having to sit in the stands every week watching me. I can only imagine what the other parents of the “good” players were thinking or saying. Every time we’d leave the field I told my parents I wanted to quit, but they wouldn’t let me. I committed to play and I had to see it through to the end of the season and then if I still wanted to, I could quit baseball. An annoying, yet, valuable life lesson being learned. Never quit. November couldn’t come quick enough.
Halloween rolls around and the baseball team is throwing an end of the year costume party for all the families at the team manager’s house. I get my costume put together: LA Kings jersey (#99), pads, gloves, helmet and a painted on black eye, blood and stitches. What do you think every other kid dressed up as? A Baseball Player. Every single one of them. As if I wasn’t already an outcast on the team, this solidified it; I never wanted to feel like that again. Thankfully my parents only stayed the obligatory amount of time to where we could leave early without being “rude” and after that, baseball was over and it was all about hockey from there on out.
About a year playing in the beginner league, I get asked to play on a tournament team being formed out of the roller rink: The Riverside Rebels. 22 years ago, inline hockey was in its infancy and to illustrate how primitive it was here’s a pic of me at about nine years old:
League issued plastic cane hockey sticks, no facemasks, Jofa “brain-bucket”, ball hockey played on quarter-rinks (width wise, not length wise). Inline blades were relatively new so at least half the players skated in quads. It is amazing to see how far the sport has come since then!
A few years later there’s a new form of inline hockey spurting up in my area called “Long-stick”. This was real hockey with a puck, full court, actual hockey sticks, etc. My passion and love of hockey blew up at this point. We got to travel and compete against teams from different parts of the country, family vacations were being planned around my hockey schedule, weekends were spent either at the rink or at a teammates house for sleepovers, etc. Hockey was now becoming life.
Around 1996, a new rink was being built that was a dedicated hockey facility with Sport Court, boards, glass, scoreboards, etc. Inline Sports Center in Corona (now The Rinks: Corona Inline) would become my second home for the next eight years and the foundation of nearly every part of my adult life started here. The first hockey directors were Joe Cook and Ken Murchinson and I enrolled in almost every hockey school they ran. Up until then, all my coaches had been parents donating their time and just making sure the kids had fun. These were professional hockey players teaching and coaching you. I’m not sure I can describe the anxiety a 12-year-old feels when you have Joe (then current captain of the RHI Anaheim Bullfrogs) yelling at you to move the puck or pick your head up; or Ken (noted goal scoring tough-guy for the Bullfrogs) simply give you a glare after a bad pass or screwing up a drill. But their expertise, knowledge and discipline instilled in me core values of what it means to be an athlete and teammate.
Hockey now was such a major part of my life, playing every night of the week between club and travel teams, eventually the hockey-bug trickled down to my younger sister, Kelley (pictured below with Joe Cook):
Joe had partnered with former NHLer Jim Thomson and formed EPH (Energy Performance Hockey), a hockey school and travel program based out of Corona.
Kelley’s first team included Joey Doran, Brennan Towle, and other top 10 year olds in the area and was my earliest experience coaching as an assistant to Dylan Brunton, the new hockey director at the rink [enter my first familiarity to meeting a weird Canadian]. Dylan brought a passion and humor to the bench and from him I gained a newfound passion in hockey through coaching.
So now not only was I playing on 4 or 5 teams, I was coaching one too. Tournament weekends just became a blur between coaching early morning mite games and playing peewee and bantam games later and into the night. Exhausting but exhilarating.
All this hockey left little room for a “normal” social life. I never hung out with friends from school because I just didn’t have time; all my friends and social circles were in hockey. It was probably at this age of 14 that I was starting to realize I was different, although I wasn’t totally sure how or why. Teammates and friends were getting girlfriends and locker room banter started being filled with the types of conversations (typical?) teenage boys talk about. I couldn’t relate but didn’t want to be ostracized or an outcast either so I went along with the banter and jokes and did whatever I could to fit in as part of the team. I’d hear every now and then some girl had a crush on me; my friends would tease and egg me on to “go after it” ….and on the outside, I’d play along but internally having an anxiety attack, not entirely sure what to do or how to feel.
Right or wrong, most people have a deep desire to fit in. Call it cause of evolution, social construct, social engineering, what have you…. but most people like feeling part of the pack. People tend to be fearful of what they don’t know and commonality breeds trust and acceptance. At least in the late 90’s/early 2000’s it was like this, I like to think it’s gotten better now.
I buried these thoughts and feelings and told myself: I’m just in a phase. It’ll pass. Don’t worry. You’re normal. Keep playing hockey. Do what you love. Be the best (you can be) and everything will be okay.
My first Narch was 1998 at The Cooler in Alpharetta, GA. Talk about a jaw-dropping experience; this was roller hockey on an entirely different level. Without question the best of the best from all over the continent were here, under one roof. 14-year old-me was so enthralled with the entire experience it furthered my love for the sport and I would go on to attend every Narch Finals for the next 18 years. Our EPH team, coached by Jim Thomson, entered the peewee platinum division and lost to a stacked Honeybaked team in the semifinals and missed out on a bronze medal by just 2 goals against. The fire and passion for playing at this level had been officially lit.
By 17 I was playing Bantam, Juniors and D-1. Coaching mites, squirts, peewees, etc. Our 10u Velocity team was a dream come true and totally spoiled me as a coach. Alongside Dave Cairns, we had Dakota Eveland, Taylor Aronson, JT Thomas, Darren Nowick, Brett Olinger, Parker Conant, Tyler Culp, Evan McNerney, and Brad “B.A.” Atkinson in net. We won Mite AAA that year in 2002 St. Paul and for the next 7 years would see additions such as Beau Bennett, Brandon Pirri, Justin Baker, Nick Dillon and Nick Marisic join the team. In those 7 years, we would lose just 25 games or something like that (credit to Taylor’s grandpa, Ted, for keeping track of the stats of every single game we played).
(I’d continue to coach travel and high school teams for the next 11 years or so, each team a new set of talents, personalities, meltdowns, wins, losses, championships, jubilation and heartbreak. I’d like to thank all my former players for always giving me your best, regardless of what was happening in your lives at the time. Each of you made an impact on me and helped me grow as a person and if I had a positive impact on you, too, then I consider my job a success.)
So, I’m a senior in high school and more than ever my life is consumed with hockey. I’d skip periods 1-3 on Wednesdays to go play in weekly morning skates at Anaheim Hockey Club (RIP) with the top players my age and “movers & shakers” of the industry: Joe, Ken, Arsenault, Sutton, Mishka, Benny Frank, Osterkamp, Chavira, [a tiny] Taylor Kane….so much talent and so much fun!
My first men’s/pro tournament was shortly after turning 18 with Team Mission in Topcat Finals.
L-R Top: Rob Laurie, Justin Hoffman, Joe Cook, Tom Wiebe, Logan Martinez, Gerry St. Cyr, Scott Pincus
L-R Bottom: Ryan Thomas, me, Kelly Spain
As a Mission and Hyper sponsored athlete, I spent 18 hours a day in the rink at tournaments. Coaching, playing, helping work the Mission booth in between gaps, etc. Upon graduating high school, Dave Cairns recommended me for a job at a startup wheel company that was founded by the mad-scientist behind Hyper, Neil Piper. Neil and Tony Gabrielle offered me a part-time job to get their newly founded wheel brand, Revision, off the ground. I now got to work for a hockey company! Every player’s dream come true and I am now experiencing another side to hockey that would fuel a burning passion inside me.
This is what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to work in the industry, create products, help grow the sport, make player’s lives and experiences better.
I like to think I setup a good foundation for Revision. The first couple years were a tough learning experience for me…. after all it was my first real job. Neil and Tony have lots of patience. I began teaching myself Illustrator and Photoshop and designed our wheels, shirts, bags, booth, etc. I can’t help but chuckle at some of my early designs:
By year three, the brand is starting to get some headway and notoriety. Our first major tournament we sponsored was State Wars 1 in 2005.
Here I am at another national tournament coaching multiple teams and playing, but now for the first-time I’m head-manning a booth on sponsor row. I’ll never forget it. Being able to speak with players and parents from all over learning about their teams, their lives, what they like in a product, what they thought of our product; seeing the pure excitement a kid gets when handed out promo items; keeping a close eye on the other sponsors checking to see who would be the first to call it a day (I learned quickly from my time doing the Mission booth: Never be the first one to tear down). There I am sitting at my booth at 6pm, I’ve been at the rink since 6am and I have a couple games to play soon, but not one other booth is even close to tearing down. Voice in my head saying, “Don’t be first. Don’t be first. Don’t be first”.
I track down a player who had been hanging around the booth all day and offer him a free set of wheels if he can watch my booth for the next couple hours while I play my games. Deal. My games end at about 9 or 10 and I head up the stairs to my booth and low and behold, the last booth standing was Revision. Mission accomplished (no pun intended). Day 1 over and only 14 more to go.
Near the end of the event, I’m sitting in the stands of the arena rink watching two states of a younger division battle in playoffs, and Joe comes over and takes a seat next to me. By now, Joe and I have known each other long enough that there was little small talk before he got right to the point. He offered me a job, full-time, to come work for him at Mission Hockey.
Oh. My. God.
I was beyond excited but also apprehensive. I had just spent 3 years building a brand from the ground up and it was just starting to come to fruition; Revision was my baby. I asked for a week or two to think about it.
The opportunity was too good to pass up and when I sat down with Neil and Tony and told them I was offered a job at Mission, they could see it in my eyes that is where I wanted to go. They were VERY understanding, obviously disappointed and/or nervous on what would happen with the RV brand now, but they encouraged me and gave great advice. All they asked was that I help find a suitable replacement to take my place. I reached out to my coaching colleague, Nabeel Gerges, to see if he was interested in the job and the rest [there] is history. (Kind of funny now 10 years later I’m writing this piece for Revision. E.L.E.)
Working at Mission hockey was a dream come true. Working on product ideas, handling sponsored teams and athletes, setting up the event schedule for all the tournaments I would be traveling to. I worked directly for Sean Riley, then Director of Marketing, and I was also able to keep my design flare going under Justin Hoffman. I designed uniforms for our sponsored teams, our bag line, tees, hoodies, hats, etc.
I’m 22 years old and life is great. I’m living by the beach, work for the largest hockey company on the planet, I’m at dozens of tournaments meeting and talking to new people, coaching a handful of teams, still managing to play (somewhat decently). On the outside I am the envy of all my friends, but internally I’m struggling.
I began falling more in love with the behind-the-scenes aspect of working for a manufacturer (designing, product development, sales historicals and data, etc.) and less with the grind of booth/tournament work. I wanted to be part of the engine that drove the company, not just the exterior paint seen by the public. But my primary job was to be on the road and do events.
On top of that, I felt like I’ve dug myself into a hole I could never climb out of, for my entire life is a spider-web entangled in this hyper-masculine sport of hockey. I could never shake that anxious feeling, deep down inside me, that I was different. An outcast.
I masked this and used partying to keep up appearances and those thoughts and feelings from boiling up. Words of advice: don’t do that. I lost all interest in playing and passion for my job.
Eventually it came to a head while on the road setting up the booth at the Vancouver Narch Regional. When I flew in I called some friends to go out for some drinks and ended up pulling an all-nighter. My alarm went off at 6am: time to head to the rink. I had absolutely zero enthusiasm on setting up so I just stayed in my room. I pulled myself together and made it in for days 2 and 3, finished off the weekend and flew back home. Tuesday, I arrived to work and within 20 minutes I’m called into Joe’s office. It was time for an awakening.
(Apparently, the local Vancouver sales rep had scheduled a meeting with a couple retailers to come by the booth and check out the new line. Just one major problem, there was no one at the booth nor any of the product on display as that was the day I decided to take a “sick day”. Embarrassment is an understatement to how I feel about doing that, even to this day.)
I screwed up. BIG TIME. With such a long history between us, I could tell Joe was wavering a bit on his decision to fire me, almost opting to give me one more chance. Thankfully, he didn’t and I will never forget what he said next…. “I know it doesn’t feel like it now, but this will be the best thing for you because you will land back on your feet and once you do, you will never make this mistake and take your job for granted again.”
Now unemployed, I drive back home and my roommate, Nick Gizmondi, is just waking up making coffee (its only 8am). Obviously perplexed as to why in the hell am I home when I should be at work, I tell him the news. He helped me a lot through this period of transition getting me out of the house and taking me along on some of his voice over jobs, hanging out with friends, anything to keep me from staying in the apartment. (And I must say congratulations to him for achieving his dreams and goals…the guy is on NBC Sports now!)
Anyway, after a few days of feeling sorry for myself, I’m contemplating what am I going to do next. I could always go work for my dad at the family business…I mean how bad would I have to screw up to get fired from that??? But, to me that was the easy road to take. My friends called me an idiot but I knew what my dreams and passions were and I wanted to see them through. Hockey had been my entire life and I wanted it to continue to be so.
Knowing my passion laid in the design field, I decide to work freelance. I reached out to Nabeel and was able setup a freelance design contract with Revision where they would put me on retainer and I’d do all their product and graphic designs. In a round-a-bout way, I’m back involved in the industry!
For the next 3 or 4 years, I continue to coach, design for RV, pick up referrals and side jobs doing web design, graphic work, advertising, etc. Sean Riley even helped getting me a sub-contractor spot with Mission’s advertising agency (although that only lasted for a couple projects). More importantly, these years were spent getting mentally healthy and strong. I eased way back on the partying, only going out to enjoy quality time with friends or family. I wasn’t going to let that affect my professional career ever again.
During this period, I had finally come to an understanding and realization where this deeply-rooted feeling of anxiety I’ve had my whole life is coming from. At 26, I’m gay. And it hits me in a series of waves:
Wave 1: Breathe. Are you sure? Pretty sure. Maybe it’s still a phase? No, you dumbass, it’s not. Maybe you just haven’t met the right girl? No that’s not how it works either, Einstein.
Wave 2: Oh crap, what is everyone going to say or do if they find out? What will my friends and teammates think? My colleagues? Could I ever play hockey again? Could I still coach? Never mind that, what will my family think?
The endless negative possibilities and outcomes seemed insurmountable.
Wave 3: Deal with it. Let life take its course. Figure yourself out first. Be happy. Be confident. Be true to yourself.
Since I was 14 years old, I had suppressed something innate in me that so desperately wanted to break free. Some of you may be asking, “How didn’t you know” or “What took so long?” Well, fear of the unknown is a bitch and I always had some excuse to rationalize it and stay in the proverbial “closet”. It doesn’t make sense now, but it is what it is.
If I could go back in time and tell myself one thing during this period, it would be: “Have faith in people. You’re not giving them enough credit, Nick.”
For about a year I just lay low. Letting it all sink in. “Be happy. Be confident. Be true to yourself. Let life take its course.”
In early 2010, I was doing freelance work for a company called Faction Sports, the subsidiary of the company who owns Rink Rat and by May I was hired on full time and was determined NOT to let this chance slip through my fingers.
That year at Narch San Jose was, without a doubt, the most fun I’ve had working or participating in a tournament, ever. We pumped the heck out of the new Rink Rat line, particularly the new Split wheel.
In the fall, we were planning a full-blown skate and equipment line. I had logos, concepts, everything all designed up ready to go.
It’s around this time that my personal life took an unexpected turn. I had met someone that I cared about who also cared about me. I had never had feelings like this before. Is this happiness? Sure feels like it. This is what I’ve been craving all this time and it was amazing. But there was still part of me left unfulfilled. Nobody, as far as I knew, knew the true me. It was time to open that door.
The first person I told was Joe. We weren’t just co-workers, we had a great friendship out of the office too and I knew I could confide in him. So, one day we’re at Rudy’s Sports Bar and the topic of conversation starts shifting to relationships. Eventually, with enough “nerve calming adult beverages” consumed, I told him I was gay.
To paraphrase his response, he said, “I know…. You have nothing to be ashamed of…I’m happy for you…When can I meet him?”
Me: “What?! You KNEW?! How in the – what?” “Meet my boyfriend?!” “Who are you?!” I thought I had everyone fooled. Turns out it was just myself this whole time.
And as I gradually confided in those closest to me, I kept getting the same responses. It was mind-blowingly refreshing. The weight lifted off my shoulders was blissful. I am very grateful, and humbled, that my experience coming out was so positive as there are millions of others who aren’t as fortunate.
Life is back to good at this point. I’m happy, my friends and family are behind me, opportunities at work are looking great. December is rolling around and the hammer hits:
Our parent company and Joe had a fundamental difference on the direction of the company resulting in all the employees being let go, except me. Eight months into my new job and there I am left holding the bag; an entire brand and company resting on my shoulders.
What do I do now? Is this going to last? I don’t know how to run a company! Never give up.
This first couple months of this were completely nerve-racking. At any given day, it could all be shut down. But I just put my head down and worked and learned about the business side as much as I could. I put together a comprehensive budget, sales and marketing strategies for the coming year, and they were received well. Time to put it into action.
I hired on my friend George Collins to help make Rink Rat the best brand it could be. George is handling teams, tournaments and players while I’m handling sales, dealers, purchasing, strategies, etc. We both did inventory, packing and shipping (albeit George more than I). If you received an incorrectly packed order, it was probably me. My bad.
I loved learning how to work and communicate with hockey retailers. I got an inside look at their issues, what they need from a vendor, how hard it is to sell product, how to make my product better or easier to sell. Listening to your customers is so incredibly important. I have great admiration for the buyers I was privileged to work with from Matt at HG, Corey at IW, Jeff at Total, Sean and John at Monkey, and all the smaller “mom n’ pop” shops I worked with.
Things are starting to turn up again. The new wheel line is selling well, I still have a job, I have a lot of control and say in the direction of the brand…. pretty much this is truly a hockey player’s dream job. There was just one more piece missing from the puzzle: hardly any of my colleagues, teammates or friends within the hockey community knew about my sexuality.
Be confident. Be true to yourself. Be Happy.
I make it a point that when I fly in to Florida for Narch that summer, I’ll let the cat out of the bag and tell my friends and colleagues. Five days before my flight out, I start getting text messages. Kotch: “Hey buddy, happy for you”. Frenchy: “Love ya man, when you are coming to Narch”, etc. Oh crap, okay now it’s all out there. Yet instead of being relieved, for some reason I am struck with a lightning bolt of anxiety.
I knew my closest friends in hockey wouldn’t care, but what about everyone else? How many people knew? What will they say? Will they say anything? Fear of the unknown, I guess.
So, I take my red eye flight and after a brief nap at the hotel I drive to Germain Arena at about 10am. There I find myself just standing in the middle of the parking lot, almost frozen. I have no idea what was running through my mind…. I had already come out to my core-people…. what was I so fearful of? Thinking back, I suppose I just needed a few minutes for the gravity of the situation to make sense. This was Narch… the entire hockey world was here at this moment.
I walk in through the main entrance and head over to sponsor row to check on the booth. First person I see walking up to me was Tommy Neer and he just gave me a big hug. Joe was next, then Tyler and Riley. Rob Chornomud practically squeezed the air out of my lungs, then jokingly told me to “keep my hands to myself”.
It was unreal. Narch went off better than I could’ve imagined. The love and support shown by everyone was overwhelming and I can’t thank you all enough.
From 2011-2014 I ran Rink Rat from top to bottom and eventually had a total understanding of the business. I was driven and ambitious and wanted to take the next step: own my own company. I worked out a deal to purchase Faction Sports from its parent company which would result in me being 100% in charge of the direction of Rink Rat. In April 2014 that deal was finalized! I brought Skyler Hoar on board joining Angel Rios and myself. I had been working on a new idea for a wheel since 2010 and was finally able to release the Identity Krysis to market along with 5 new models, videos, new booth, website, the whole gamut. That year we had the biggest booth Rink Rat had ever had and the buzz on the new wheels was electrifying. We couldn’t keep product in stock following that launch.
Skyler on set shooting a promo video for the newly re-vamped World Cup wheel.
However, the honeymoon was short lived and all I can say is that the agreement between myself and the company from whom I purchased Faction “had a dispute that was amicably resolved”. Exactly 1 year after acquiring Faction, it was all gone. I am now out of a job, out of the industry (again), filing bankruptcy and moving back home with my parents while the fallout from this nuclear bomb settles.
What do I do now? I know the family business is there and that’s looking like a real possibility. But I also hate that I feel like a failure. I know what I am capable of.
Be Passionate. Be True To Yourself. Never Give Up.
I knew if I was ever going to be happy I need to be passionate with what I am doing to make that life happen. I started up a little business with a close friend selling hockey jerseys. Our vendors were local and had great turnaround times that could give us a little bit of a competitive advantage, thus Grasshopper Gamewear was born. We grinded, hard. Driving all over to various shops and vendors, picking up materials and delivering product. It’s remarkable we managed to meet every single deadline we were on for our customers. That hard work paid off as soon a long-time mutual friend was interested in investing enough money to allow us to control our own manufacturing and production.
Velocity Manufacturing Group (named after the team) was formed as the parent company for Grasshopper and we purchased sublimation machines, printers, sewing machines, etc. I would’ve never anticipated being a jersey manufacturer but the process and capabilities are quite fascinating!
When I first got into the industry, my goal was to make players’ experiences with inline hockey better. Now in my own little way, I think I can accomplish that through jerseys and uniforms. We do all our own manufacturing right here in Southern California, source high quality material from LA, have good delivery times, no minimums and at affordable prices.
In many defining moments in my life, Narch was the medium that made them happen. Therefore, one of first partnerships I setup was with Narch by offering packages and discounts to the players that support the organization which helped shaped my life. We’re also in the process of setting up partnerships with non-profit organizations so that a portion of all our sales go to a charity to benefit those who need it most.
I’m incredibly grateful the life inline hockey has provided me. Every one of my best friends I met through hockey. Nearly my entire EPH Peewee team still hang out frequently, go on vacations together, weddings, babies, all of it. Georgie, Kotch, Frenchy, Skyler, Tyler & Emily, Ars, Joe, Soupy, Jay, Dylan, Daryn, Rob, Angel, Riles and Tommy, you guys are awesome and thank you for being you.
If my story resonates with someone out there who is struggling with something or facing an obstacle in life; be it your job, family problems, your sexuality, your relationships… whatever it is that is making you feel like life just sucks … just know that you can overcome anything if you are passionate, true to yourself, and resilient. And more importantly, give those close to you enough credit and talk to them about what is going on in your life.