Melanie Katz's "aha!" moment came shortly after she began learning how to play hockey and started drawing portraits of goalie Henrik Lundqvist and her other favorite New York Rangers players.
"I started posting these on a few different Facebook groups, generic hockey groups, gear selling groups," Katz said. "I started getting direct messages from people in the United States and Canada asking if I can actually sketch them a goalie mask design. That's when I kind of realized that this is an actual industry and something I could explore further."
Seven years later, Katz runs M-Graphx, a hockey design firm whose work can be seen on the pads and gloves of Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Binnington, Carter Hart and other top NHL goalies.
The 22-year-old Long Island, New York, native is part of a small but growing group of women in the male-dominated hockey equipment industry who are doing everything from designing and manufacturing gear to overseeing product lines at major companies.
Their presence represents a sea change from when Sonya Di Biase became a trailblazer and began working with the late goalie equipment designer Brian Heaton in 1992 and helped create some of the most iconic gear in the business.
"There was no one there," said Di Biase who is now senior manager of branded apparel at CCM Hockey. "Women, and I hate being stereotypical, either worked in the factory producing or they were in the office doing administration, but no one was designing at that time, so I was very fortunate. Now we've had more women for sure today in the last five, 10 years who have not just joined the hockey industry, but product development."
Di Biase sees the change at her own company. She's among four women at CCM in leading positions, including Catherine Ward, a gold medalist on the Canadian women's Olympic hockey teams in 2010 and 2014, who is director of the company's stick business unit.
CCM isn't alone. Ashely Foster, for example, is a product developer at Vaughn Custom Sports Canada whose responsibilities include ensuring that all custom gear for NHL, Canadian Hockey League and European league players meet league regulations and specifications.
And some women are finding success on their own in the industry. Katz, an emergency medical technician and a former roller hockey player for the State University of New York Stony Brook, was contracted by Lefevre Inc. to do graphics for its line of goalie equipment after Patrick Lefebvre noticed some of her work on Instagram in 2019.
"My boss, Patrick Lefebvre, told me that I have to look at those graphics because they're so cool, so different than what we usually saw in graphics," said Sebastien Morin, senior product designer at True Hockey, which acquired Lefevre in September 2020. "She's now on the map, for sure. This opportunity is only the start for her."
Katz has also done design work for Mark Hockey, a Russian company, and Pro Goalie Sticks, a Michigan-based startup.
"To see your work in an NHL game on TV, it's hard to put into words," she said. "Seeing it overseas as well in the [Kontinental Hockey League] and other European leagues makes me really, really happy."
Like Katz, Sara Marschand is a one-woman hockey operation. She established Protective Athletic Wear (PAW) 15 years ago after she couldn't find anyone near her New Haven, Indiana, home who could repair her old Heaton goalie pads that literally had the stuffing beaten out of them from playing.
"I started doing my own repairs on them and then I kind of branched out from there," she said. "I started making my own equipment as I had picked up my own flatbed sewing machine. I began posting some pictures online at the old Goalie Store bulletin board and people would say, 'Hey, can you fix this' or 'Can you make me that,' and it kind of took off."
Now Marschand makes her own line of made-to-order goalie gear. She works out of a small two-story garage and serves a large clientele of youth, junior, adult and college players and at least one NHL goalie.
Collin Delia, who has played two games with the Chicago Blackhawks this season and 20 over the past three seasons, has worn PAW custom knee pads under his leg pads since playing junior hockey in Amarillo, Texas, in 2012.
"They've been the best knee pads I've ever worn, super comfortable," Delia said. "Sara is really nice to work with and she really cares about her products and her overall attention to detail. She knows goalies."
CCM's Di Biase said that she expects more women like Marschand and Katz to enter the equipment industry powered by the growth of girls and women's hockey in North America.
"Women have to see it to aspire to it, that's in any industry," said Di Biasi, who managed CCM's goalie and accessories unit for nearly five years. "As more and more women become visible in the hockey industry, more young girls are going to say, 'I want to do that, how do I get that job?'"