Back when he was 20 years old, Sawyer Hannay only had one goal — playing hockey for a living.
He was a Vancouver Canucks draft pick chasing his dream in Austria, but often found his thoughts drifting to his small hometown of Rexton, N.B.
As he absorbed the European culture around him, he would pine for the good times he had growing up in rural Atlantic Canada and wished he could come up with a way to get others to relate to those experiences.
The former Halifax Mooseheads defenceman kept turning that impulse over in his head while he continued his hockey journey in the ECHL in the United States and then at St. Thomas University, finally coming up with a vehicle in 2014 that fit. He printed a dozen T-shirts with a label he created called Country Liberty, hoping the people he sold them to would share his appreciation for small-town life.
“I decided the easiest way to represent what you’re proud of is just to wear it so I got a designer involved, I came up with a name that I trademarked and started working at it,” said Hannay.
“The real irony is I’m not a real fashionable guy myself so clothing isn’t the most natural thing to me but I thought it was the easiest way to represent the lifestyle that I was proud of.”
At first, Hannay really only wanted to make his money back because what he cared most about was connecting with people through the clothes. But when customers responded even more than he expected, he decided to make a little more of the venture.
He sold more batches of shirts around Fredericton during the school year and also persuaded a clothing store in Rexton to put some on the shelves. He also had a modest online operation.
Over time, he started selling other branded items like hats and tank tops. By the time he graduated in 2016 with a degree in economicsand business, Hannay’s self-described “super-casual passion project” had grown to the point where he saw potential for something more.
“In no way, shape or form did I ever dream it would become a serious business,” he said. “It stayed really casual for a long time because I thought I was going to play pro again after university.
“I even accelerated my degree. I did summer courses, spring courses and overloaded during my semesters. I finished my degree in two and a half years, thinking the younger I am when I graduate the more opportunities I’ll have professionally for hockey. But throughout school and the organic growth of Country Liberty, I got more interested in business and the brand. So when graduation time came around, my plan had shifted.
“Instead of playing pro, I wanted to take my business more seriously.
“I knew that if I was going to be serious about it I had to take some risks. I’m not a very risky person, just in general, so I had to get out of my comfort zone a little bit to make some conventional business decisions in terms of borrowing money, investing time and energy into trying to grow something, and making short-term sacrifices in hopes of long-term gain. I kind of went all-in and that’s when it got significantly more serious and it started to grow at a much faster rate.”
Hannay’s business quickly grew from those piecemeal sales at the grassroots level to a full-fledged clothing line in less than two years.
“When I was in university I was selling T-shirt by T-shirt, hat by hat or tank top by tank top — just really small scale — there in Rexton,” said Hannay, who is now 25.
“That started to grow to a point where I thought, ‘OK, I’m building enough confidence in the product that maybe I can contact another store.’ Eventually I was cold-calling and pitching to stores one by one that were all independently owned, because the big clothing chains were still fairly intimidating. So I was meeting all these great independent retailers across New Brunswick and I put myself in a position where I could work with some promotional partners.
“Moosehead Brewery contacted me and wanted to do a huge campaign together. The same thing happened
with the Cavendish Beach Music Festival so those were two really big moves for the brand.
“It eventually piqued the interest of Pseudio, which brought me from selling mostly around New Brunswick to all the way across Atlantic Canada and three stores in Alberta. I was in 17 or 18 independent stores at that time but Pseudio has 29 stores so now we’re doing even more together. We’re trying to develop some new products, getting more creative and maybe bringing the brand to the next level compared to where it was six or 12 months ago.”
Through it all, Hannay’s original inspiration remained the constant. He consistently gets feedback from customers who share his appreciation of the rural experience, which explains his steady expansion. He said his philosophy is best represented in the Country Liberty logo, which is shaped like a guitar pick and features a campfire in the bottom corner.
“The guitar pick is about the country music and the acoustic guitar that was part of that lifestyle,” he said. “And there were 101 different images I could’ve put on the logo but I really thought critically about what really represents the country and the community, and the social aspect of the country, and I really thought the campfire was best. As kids, that was our social outing. It wasn’t going to the pub down the street, it was grabbing a box of beer and going to a campfire.”
Not surprisingly, Hannay has even managed to infuse a little bit of hockey into the venture. He recently reconnected with the Mooseheads and arranged for three of the players — Bo Groulx, Jake Ryczek and Connor Moynihan — to join him for a promotional video shoot.
“The boys had a day off in between their (playoff ) series so we went out to Conrads Beach, hung out and shot some video,” Hannay said. “That was really cool when those guys came out. I remember when I was with the Mooseheads and talking to guys who used to play for the team and you’d kind of compare stories. I’m on the other side of that now so that was fun.”