Predators captain Roman Josi and former Islanders captain Mark Streit aren’t only Swiss NHL trailblazers – they’re helping grow an “entry-level luxury” watch brand from back home.
On the ice, Mark Streit and Roman Josi have helped blaze a trail into the NHL for Swiss hockey players. Now, the pair are applying that same courage and determination to one of their homeland’s most treasured traditions, watchmaking.
Five years ago, the two defensemen signed on as co-founders of Norqain, a new, independent Swiss watchmaking company,
The first Swiss skater ever to become an NHL regular when he landed with the Montreal Canadiens in 2006, Streit struck an endorsement deal with Breitling watches during his playing days and became friends with rep Ben Kuffer, now 35, who covered the company’s Swiss and Asian territories.
When the family-owned Breitling was sold to a private equity firm in 2017, Kuffer began searching for a fresh path. He found it in Streit’s backyard in Bern during a summer barbecue.
“Me and Mark were like, ‘Hey, why don’t we just start our own thing? Start your own watch company?’ ” Josi recalled.
“It’s funny because we’re two hockey players, right? No idea what it takes to start a business like that and no idea about the watch industry. But (Kuffer) just took it and ran with it. Three months later, he had a whole presentation and how he’s going to do it. We’re all excited and we’re like, ‘Yeah, I want to be part of that.’ “
Watchmaking in Switzerland dates back to the 16th century, but very few Swiss brands remain family owned. Barriers to entry in the industry are also as high as the Matterhorn mountain, but Kuffer’s family roots and industry know-how helped Norqain gain an early toehold.
Kuffer’s father, Marc, had risen through the ranks to become CEO of watch production company Roventa Henex. Childhood friend Ted Schneider, whose family had owned Breitling until the 2017 sale, also signed on to the new venture.
As he looked ahead to retirement and life after hockey, Streit recognized that working with the Kuffers and Schneiders offered a promising opportunity. His decision to jump on board was fuelled by the same determination that made him successful when he was drafted into the NHL at age 26.
“You need a little bit of courage,” he said. “You’ve got to try something in your life. At least you have to try — if you don’t make it, you can look back and say, ‘Well, I gave everything I had, and it didn’t work.’
“Fortunately enough for me, it worked out better than I ever thought, and I played in the NHL for for 12 years. I had a great career. For me, it was later on. And back then, Swiss hockey players, we didn’t really have a reputation. It was, ‘Switzerland is known for watches and skiing and chocolate and mountains,’ but not really for hockey. And I think Swiss hockey came a long way in the past 10 years.”
With the Kuffer family as Norqain’s majority shareholder, and despite recent economic challenges in the luxury sector and the difficulties of building a global business during the COVID-19 pandemic, Norqain is profitable after just five years. Sales grew by more than 100 percent in 2022 to eclipse 10,000 watches.
The United States is Norqain’s biggest market. Josi helped get that ball rolling early on when he took a collection of watches to major retailer King Jewelers in Nashville.
“I told Ben, ‘There’s a great jewelry store in Nashville,’ ” Josi recalled. “I was like, ‘We should start selling our watches there.’ He’s like, ‘Why don’t you go in there and talk to them about it?’
“I got in touch with David, the owner of the jewelry store, and one of the guys from the Predators came with me,” Josi continued. “We just showed them the watches, told them about the watches. And a couple of months later, they started selling the watches, and they’re still in there. It was funny, and I think it was one of the earlier stores in the U.S., too. So it was pretty cool.”
Marketed as ‘entry-level luxury,’ with prices between $2,000 and $6,000 U.S., the hallmarks of Norqain’s Independence, Adventure and Freedom lines are precision Swiss mechanics and designs that capture the excitement of the outdoors.
The company has quickly established high-profile partnerships, including being the official timekeeper of the New York City, Berlin and Zurich marathons.
In 2020, Streit helped broker a strategic partnership with the NHLPA, which has seen limited-edition custom timepieces gifted to participants at the annual All-Star Game.
“A lot of players, especially the guys I played against or that I know, I think they’ve found the project really great and ambitious and that it took a lot of courage,” Streit said. “They were fantastic support for us.”
And while NHL players may not be as flashy as athletes in other pro sports, a nice watch is an important status symbol within their circle.
“A lot of guys, I feel like, are passionate about watches,” Josi said. “That’s something they always dream of — once you make a decent amount of money, you want to buy that dream watch of yours, and it’s something you have for the rest of your life.
“It’s kind of the main jewelry for guys, the watch. It’s such a classy thing and something you can wear every day or for different occasions. I was definitely a big fan of watches before, but now, it’s a little more intense.”
Though they hail from the same hometown of Bern and play the same position on the ice, Josi and Streit are rather unlikely business colleagues. They’re 12 years apart, and while Josi is currently back in Nashville, preparing for his seventh season as captain of the Predators under first-time GM Barry Trotz and coach Andrew Brunette, Streit hung up his skates six years ago at the age of 39.
Streit was also an NHL captain for two years with the New York Islanders. He wrapped up his career with a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017. And while Josi leads all Swiss-born players with 601 career NHL points and was the first Swiss player ever to win a major award when he captured the Norris Trophy in 2020, Streit remains right behind him in second place, with 434 career points.
When Josi was drafted in 2008, Streit was three seasons into his NHL career and had just posted a career-high 62 points with the Canadiens. A nervous Josi met him for the first time when he made his senior men’s team debut for Switzerland at the 2009 World Championship in Bern.
“I knew from the first time I saw him play what kind of player he is and what kind of person he is,” Streit said. “After that, we talked a lot. I was maybe, a little bit, his mentor at the beginning.”
After years of organizing his off-season workouts on his own, Streit was glad to invite Josi to join him on the ice in Bern. Yannick Weber, another Swiss defenseman who played 499 NHL games, also soon joined the group.
“That made it easier for me,” Streit said. “Those two guys were young, coming-up players and they pushed me. I was kind of the more experienced guy. That helped me to stay in the league for such a long time.”
Now, the father of two is back home in Bern when he isn’t spreading the word about Norqain. And with all the successes that his young passion project has already achieved, he has his sights set on another bucket-list goal.
“It’s a long shot, but it’s still my dream that one day we’re going to be the official timekeeper of the NHL,” he said. “It’d be an unbelievably big commitment, so we’re a work in process, but you never know what’s in the future.
“We want to stay in sport. We are an active brand and I think that’s how we can activate in the best way possible.”
Source: The Hockey News