When the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team goes to Sochi, Russia, to compete in the Winter Games next month, the players will be wearing socks from Tennessee.
And these aren't just any socks, according to Mark Cleveland, CEO of the Brentwood-based Swiftwick athletic sock company. The knee-high compression socks are cut-resistant, made from a fiber-optic core that protects players' feet and ankles from sharp blades, he said.
The socks, manufactured in Chattanooga, were created in 2012 and began growing in popularity in February 2013 when players reacted to Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson's injury, in which a hockey blade sliced his Achilles tendon. Players who were going without socks or simply used thin sanitary socks began looking for safer options.
"Overnight, every NHL player went from 'I don't want to be bothered' to 'What's the best sock? I need one right now,' " Cleveland said.
More equipment managers recommended the sock, and more players began using it, and now the brand is now worn by players on more than 12 NHL teams. Benefiting from word-of-mouth endorsements, the Swiftwick hockey sock was selected for the U.S. team last fall, as well as for Latvia's, Cleveland said.
Unseen but 'played'
In addition to shielding players from injury, the Swiftwick socks include a component that channels a player's upper-body sweat to the specific spots on skates where holes are drilled to release moisture. This sock development was invented at Swiftwick and has not been done before, Cleveland said.
"You get pretty hot in skates and pretty hot in all that equipment, so thermal management is pretty important," he said.
Since last spring, hockey socks have climbed to Swiftwick's third-largest market segment, behind cycling and running socks. Some college and high school programs have even begun mandating the cut-resistant product, and the company recently gained a distributor in Alberta, Canada.
When the Olympic men's hockey tournament kicks off Feb. 12, it will not be not Swiftwick's first Olympic gig. In the last Summer Olympics, the company supplied socks to the U.S. cycling team. Cleveland is honored that his company can contribute to the games in this way.
"The work that my employees and company do right here in Tennessee is there," Cleveland said. "We don't get seen, but we get played. That's a real rewarding feeling."
Reach Jamie McGee at 615-259-8071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @jamiemcgee_.