- Emily Kaplan is ESPN’s national NHL reporter.
When General Motors repurposed one of its dormant plants in Warren, Michigan, to produce face masks for front-line workers, it needed some help for a crucial step: disinfecting.
So the company turned to the hockey community for an assist.
GM called the Ilitch family, which owns the Detroit Red Wings. Christopher Ilitch then called Paul Boyer, the Red Wings’ head equipment manager.
“They were trying to get their hands on a sanitizing machine,” Boyer said. “What we use them in the sports industry for is killing the bacteria, and making that wonderful sports odor go away. You put anything in it that touches the skin: skates, shoulder pads, helmets. They’re designed to sanitize an entire bag of hockey equipment in one shot.”
The Red Wings couldn’t provide one, because when Little Caesars Arena opened in 2017, it got a modern upgrade; The sanitizing machine is built into the HVAC system in the locker room. But Boyer called five equipment managers around the NHL.
“The machines were just sitting idle in the locker rooms, so it was a no-brainer,” Boyer said. “Our guys are very generous. I could have gotten more. Some were willing to donate it, but they couldn’t get into their rinks.”
The Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers were able to, and they lent their machines to GM, no questions asked.
“Of course I said to Paul, the minute you need these things back, I’ll get it back to you,” said Rob Portugaise, GM’s executive director of manufacturing. “But so far, that hasn’t come up. Hockey has a reputation for this, right? For being close-knit and helping out the community. To be able to witness it firsthand was really exciting. It was all done very quickly. The only thing they asked for was a shipping address.”
Boyer also hand-delivered another machine, borrowed from Precision Blades in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Boyer also put GM in touch with the machine’s manufacturers in Montreal to go over any troubleshooting. The machines, according to Boyer, are about the size of a suitcase. Packages from the Blackhawks and Flyers arrived at the GM facility within days of Ilitch making the initial call to Boyer.
GM had purchased one cabinet that does disinfecting, “but quickly we learned we would have to get more capacity,” Portugaise said. “Each of those units now gives us four time the capacity of the cabinets.”
With the additional hockey machines, GM said its production can now make as many as 3 million face masks a month.
“It was an absolute godsend,” Portugaise said.
GM said it is still ramping up production. The company is running around the clock, and roughly 140 people are working on the project total. As of last week, GM had provided over 680,000 face masks to front line workers — mostly hospitals, but also fire and police departments.
Currently, GM is providing only for the state of Michigan “because there’s such a need here,” Portugaise said.
As the company gets more capacity, they will look to support outside of the state as well.
“You hear stories,” said Portugaise, a lifelong hockey fan. “But this just gave me more appreciation for the hockey community.”
Boyer said he wasn’t surprised the Red Wings’ competitors stepped up.
“It confirms what a tight-knit group we are,” Boyer said. “At the end of the day, our teams are playing each other, but it’s just a tight knit group. We’re a tight knit group of friends, that’s what we are.”
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