words & photos :: Kristin Schnelten. Article sponsored by Sporting Life.
January 27, 2020: Sporting Life store general manager Andy Hotson was just returning from a day on the hill with his kids when he got the call: There’s a fire at the shop.
He rushed to the store and found the fire department already on the scene. Andy and the rest of the staff, some of whom were inside when the fire began, stood across the street and watched in silence.
“In the beginning, I thought, Okay, this is going to be a couple weeks of inconvenience, and we’ll be back up and running,” says Andy. But as the black smoke billowed and fire crews tried in vain to tame the blaze, the reality became clear: “It just escalated so quickly. I realized, This is really, really bad. It’s going to take a long time to recover.”
Four hours later, Andy and the rest of the team finally went home. “I was still unsure of the magnitude of it until I came the next morning. The roof had collapsed, a wall had collapsed. It was a complete 100 per cent loss,” he says. “It was tough. It was really tough.”
Sporting Life had been a fixture of Collingwood‘s Hurontario Street for 18 years—with Andy there from the very beginning, taking over as store manager in 2014. “We’ve seen generations of families come through our doors,” says Andy. And those ties to the community are what got the staff through the first few months.
“That first day, I went for breakfast at the Red Hen,” remembers Andy. “People were stopping to hug me and wish me the best. After that, anywhere I went—to get groceries, out at the ski hill —not just me, but all of our staff, no matter where we went, everybody was behind us and saying, ‘I can’t wait for the next chapter’ and asking about ‘Sporting Life 2.0.’”
“It was kind of a great feeling, really like a sense of family. The community was just so supportive,” he says. “We decided, You know what? We’re going to rebuild. We’ve got this, guys. We’re gonna bounce back.”
In the midst of this surge of spirit, March 2020 arrived. Now the rest of the world was asking the same questions as the team at Sporting Life: What’s going on? What’s going to happen now?
As lockdowns eased a bit and life got back on track, “there was a clearer picture, and we decided we needed to somehow open for the next ski season.” Sporting Life chose the former Pie restaurant on First Street for their temporary location, and had barely signed the lease when Andy’s phone rang: There’s a fire.
“When I got the call I just thought, You gotta be kidding me. You’re joking. But of course it wasn’t a joke.” An electrical issue with the former business’s sign ignited a small roof fire, luckily causing only minimal damage—nowhere near the extent of the Hurontario store fire—but it still set them back six weeks.
Repairs and renovations followed, and by early December 2020, the temporary store was up and running. With skis, boots, poles and accessories, they were able to keep their customers suited up for the season and maintain relationships they’d built in a nearly 20-year history—relationships not only with local families but with revered local organizations such as Alpine Ontario and the National Ski Academy and at a national level with Alpine Canada.
The following spring, Sporting Life broke ground on the Hurontario reconstruction, beginning a whirlwind project that, in the midst of global supply chain issues, lockdowns and labour shortages, seems to have sprung up overnight. “It really has happened quickly,” says Andy. “There were so many factors working against us, but we made it happen.”
The new store opened its doors on November 27. Completely rebuilt from the ground up, the new Sporting Life is in the same location and is roughly the same square footage as the former store, but the new building is a brighter, more open space, filled with natural light and designed with a high, open ceiling. “It’s a 100 per cent improvement over the old one,” says Andy. “It’s just great, and we’re so thankful to be here.”
With the full team from the old store finally back on staff, there’s a palpable sense of excitement in the gleaming new space. Andy takes pride in his team, who he thinks of as the most authentic around, each of them filled with passion for their sport, whether it’s skiing, biking or hiking.
Local ski coaches Wayne Howard and Will Gyles are back for another season, along with other long-time fixtures of the Sporting Life scene, including long-time assistant manager Kate Shelepuk and shop manager Bill Ford, known for his precision tunes.
The personal knowledge and experience of staff has long been lauded in the area, and the Sporting Life experts have been trusted to fit some of Canada’s top athletes. This year they’re upping the ante with the addition of a brand-new Wintersteiger Jupiter ski-tuning machine, touted by its manufacturer as “The new king of the ski-service universe.”
“For a while there I thought, Fire? Now Covid? Another fire? What else can happen?,” says Andy. “But we’re on the right end of things now. We’ve had tremendous feedback from the community about how great the new store looks, and how much we’ve been missed.”
Filled with the latest equipment, clothing and accessories, the resurrected location is ready just in time for the ski season. “We’re really looking forward to seeing everyone again and getting our customers and the local ski teams outfitted for the mountain.”