Green Sports Startups

Doug Lynch, From NHL to Eco-Preneur with Zenkai Sports


Doug Lynch’s combination of athletic talent, dogged persistence, and desire to improve led him to a long pro ice hockey career, including a stint in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers.  

Add intellectual curiosity to the mix and one can understand his burgeoning post-hockey career as a serial entrepreneur.

And add to that Lynch’s lifelong love of the outdoors and one can see that his interest in climate solutions — he recently launched Zenkai Sports, a performance apparel startup with sustainability as a core pillar — is a perfect fit.

GreenSportsBlog spoke with EcoAthletes’ newest Champion about his journey from young British Columbia hockey player to eco-preneur and how he and his company plan to make a difference on the #ClimateComeback

Doug Lynch had a hockey stick in hands for as far back as he can remember.

“I’ve been playing since I was three,” the Vancouver native shared. “While I never dreamt of making the NHL when I was a young kid, but I was drafted 7th overall in the Western Hockey League, one of the top junior hockey leagues in Canada, when I was 15, by the Red Deer Rebels. Red Deer is in Alberta between Calgary and Edmonton. I lived with a wonderful host family; on the other hand, doing homework on the 18-hour bus rides was not easy.”

Lynch thrived in that environment, scoring the championship-winning goal that earned Red Deer the 2001 Memorial Cup, the biggest prize in junior hockey. Next, the Edmonton Oilers of the NHL called, drafting Lynch when he was 17. Kevin Lowe, an Oilers legend from the Wayne Gretzky-Stanley Cup dynasty era, was the GM; the well-respected Craig MacTavish was the coach, and the great Anson Carter was a training camp teammate. It was all pretty heady stuff.

Doug Lynch (Photo credit: Doug Lynch)

“Going to my first camp with Edmonton was pretty incredible,” Lynch related. “I had a good camp but got sent back down to Red Deer, since the competition was fierce.”

Thus started an itinerant yo-yoing stretch for Lynch.

He got traded to the Spokane Chiefs where, incredibly, he teamed up with his three younger brothers in one game, earning the distinction of being the first and only family of four siblings to play with the same team in the same game in North American hockey.

The four Lynch brothers (Doug is #24 at left with his brothers Jeff #14, Jason #4 and Scott #21) line up to play with the Spokane Chiefs, a first for four siblings in North American pro hockey (Photo credit: Spokane Chiefs)

Next came another tryout in Edmonton before getting sent down to the Toronto Roadrunners of the AHL, the top minor league in North American hockey.

“I had a tremendous season, making the AHL All-Star Team,” said Lynch. “Then I got a call from a reporter on New Year’s Day, 2004 that I’ll never forget. He asked, ‘how does it feel to know you’ll be playing your first NHL game tomorrow night’. He got to me before the Oilers did! It was incredible. The next night, we beat the Wild in Minnesota, 2-0. I played well. The next game, we won in Chicago, 5-2. Played well there, too. I thought I’d worked my whole like to get to the NHL and now I finally got there.”

Unfortunately, Lynch didn’t stay there for long. He had replaced an injured Oilers player and once he recovered, Lynch got sent back down to the minors. This is a common path for players on the fringe of the big team.

“It can be a brutal cycle,” acknowledged Lynch. “Teams rarely replace injured players permanently. The incumbent is often a high-priced veteran and he’d still have to be paid even if they go with the younger guy. So, unless the younger player is clearly better, the vet often gets the benefit of the doubt.”

For the next four years, Lynch was back on the pro hockey roller-coaster: Battling injuries, dealing with a season-long lockout by the NHL owners, a trade to the St. Louis Blues, getting sent to their minor league affiliate in Peoria, as younger, shinier draft picks were moving ahead of him. Then it was on to the Alaska Aces of the geographically challenged East Coast League where he won another championship – the Kelly Cup, before heading back to Peoria.

He started to ask himself: Is this what I want to do?

“I had lost the love of the game,” Lynch admitted. “Luckily, I got a call from Pierre Paget who ran the club in Salzburg, Austria. He asked me if I would like to play there. It was perfect — they treated the players great, the game involved more skill and skating and I had a chance to be ‘the guy’ and get my confidence back. We won three Austrian league championships and two European titles, was named Defenseman of the Year once. I retired at 31 in 2017, realizing that I was a bit past my prime as a player and that my body and mind were still in good shape.”

Knowing he didn’t want to put on weight, post-retirement, Lynch hit the personal reset button.

“I was so used to consuming calories and meat from years as an athlete, shared Lynch. “Then I saw a few documentaries on Netflix about on the meat industry and that led me to go vegan for a year and switch things up. That was difficult for me, so I settled on eating a pescatarian diet along with eggs, which I’ve been following for seven years. This started me on an eco-awakening that I could not have predicted.”

Lynch stopped using single-use plastic water bottles, leased an electric car, then started learning and thinking about the textile industry, specifically the athletic performance segment, through an environmental lens.

“I started asking myself ‘where does synthetic apparel come from and where does it end up?” Lynch said. “How can we do things differently to protect the environment and the climate?”

A serial entrepreneur — Lynch has already birthed seven companies, mostly in the hockey sector — he began to answer that question as he got passionate about eco-disrupting the performance apparel category while coaching Under 18 AA Hockey in Portland, Oregon.

“Most apparel companies build their moisture wicking performance apparel brands on fossil fuel-based synthetics,” offered Lynch. “Aside from that, moisture wicking is anti-science. Sweating keeps you safe by keeping you cooler so your organs don’t overheat. Moisture wicking, which pulls sweat away from your body, dries you out too quickly.”

These observations led Lynch, along with a top materials scientist, to launch Zenkai Sports, a natural pima cotton-based performance apparel company, in 2018.

Zenkai’s unique selling proposition is ‘Filium®’ a clean technology derived from natural materials which, while repelling some liquid — which enhances performance — keeps a thin layer of sweat on the skin to allow thermoregulation to take place. Also repelled are the bacteria that are carried by sweat.

“It is these bacteria in sweat, not the liquid itself, that generate the odors when it gets trapped in the fibers of our clothes,” noted Lynch. “Also, synthetic apparel traps odor causing bacteria easier than natural materials like cotton. So, our shirts smell less. This means they can be laundered less frequently and can also have a longer life, both important environmental benefits. Filium® has no metals nor nanotech fibers; Many other major brands like Lululemon, by contrast, have silver in it, which can then wash out into the water supply. In addition, cotton does not degrade into methane in the landfill.”

The driving force behind Zenkai’s innovative Filium® technology — and Lynch’s business partner — is Raj Shah, a Seattle-based textile engineer and apparel guru.

“Raj showed me that Filium® could be a performance and environmental game changer,” Lynch shared. “We are manufacturing at a Filium®-certified factory in India with very high standards in terms of working conditions. Our first product was a men’s black shirt; a women’s line is set to launch in April. Right now, our business model is 85 percent direct-to-consumer, with some presence in small family retail stores.”

Zenkai Sports men’s performance apparel (Photo credit: Zenkai Sports)

The venture capital/angel investor market clearly sees value in Zenkai’s approach. Since 2018, the team has raised $USD1 million to try to disrupt the performance apparel market. And athletes are buying in because of the product’s performance — several NHL and NBA players along with multiple MMA fighters sampled the garments and gave them glowing reviews.

And then, COVD-19 hit.

“The pandemic has of course been very, very hard on a lot of families and small businesses across the globe,” Lynch acknowledged. “We had to pause our ad spends and really rely on word of mouth and our incredible product. It has been so exciting to see our brand grow, and we have some major announcements coming in the following months… On the eco side, a strange bi-product of the pandemic occurred as people started spending more time outdoors and also becoming more aware of where products are being made,” There was also major healing done by our Earth with fish populations and lower Co2 being emitted because of less hustle and bustle from our society. I think a lot of people really started seeing the effects on how we treat the planet when everything slowed down. The new wave is transparency and people want to know that their apparel is not hurting the environment or being made by people who are oppressed.”

Doug Lynch recently became the 65th EcoAthletes Champion. He looks forward to using his platform and that of Zenkai Sports to make a positive impact on climate through apparel.

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