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STATE OF THE ART

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

What was to become the trademark look was forged 6,300 kilometres away from the source of its inspiration, the Hook and Ladder Company #8 fire station on North Moore Street in Tribeca, NYC.

Dreamed up on a family farm near Vrigstad in Småland, Sweden, built in the 1930s by Dave Gunnarsson's grandfather, Werner.

"Dave is the one who came up with the Ghostbusters theme for my mask,'' says Calgary Flames' puck-repeller Cam Talbot. "I lived maybe a five-minute walk from the fire station at the time, when I was playing for the Rangers.

"Before, to be honest, I was into Transformers masks.

"But Dave said: 'I want to do something a little different with you. No one's done a Ghostbusters mask. You play in New York. Everybody knows that fire station from the movie.

"I think it'd be fitting. I think it'd be cool.'

"So he makes the mask and people go absolutely nuts for it.

"Then I'm traded to Edmonton and all kinds of people are telling me I have to - have to - take the mask theme there with me.

"Now Ghostbusters follows me everywhere.

"It's become my identity."

On that subject, Dave Gunnarsson pleads guilty and throws himself on the mercy of the court.

"I am, myself, a big Ghostbusters fan. So when I was brainstorming ideas for a new mask for Cam, I thought: 'What could be more New York?'

"And that mask was a smash hit.

"Now, it's his thing."

If ever Dave Gunnarsson decides to pan an autobiography it should be titled: The Man (Actually) Behind the Mask(s).

So many that even mask-o-philes lose count. Gunnarsson, it seems, produces more masks than Carnevale in Venice. Over half the goalies in the NHL wear designs created at the DaveArt layout, located on that same family farm turned studio.

Not to be branded a shameless name-dropper or anything but listed among Gunnarsson's clients are: Carey Price, Jordan Binnington, Robin Lehner, Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick, Fredrik Andersson, Ben Bishop, Cory Schneider, and so on, and so forth.

He designs masks for both Flames goalies, Talbot and David Rittich, along with prospects Jon Gillies, Nick Schneider and Artyom Zagidulin.

"I kinda knew what he was doing before I got here, to North America,'' says Rittich. "I like his masks. Just look around the NHL and see how many guys are wearing them. There are no rules. You can put on the mask what you want.

"He's one of the best in the world at this."

 

 

A young man who loved to paint and loved hockey (to watch, not play), inspired by the comic-book art and the classic Disney animation films ("I loved those growing up. For example, Snow White, Robin Hood, The Jungle Book. I also like today's CGI movies but it was the Disney classics that really inspired me") has transformed a passion into a profession.

"That's my strong part. I've never had problems coming up with ideas,'' says Gunnarsson. "When I work with pro goalies, every one of them wants their own design, their own signature.

"That fits me like a glove.

"I'm very thankful that I'm able to come up with ideas so quickly. Which is why it was so special to paint the mask for Robin Lehner.

"Robin Lehner's mask last year was voted No. 1 in the NHL. That pleased me very much. As everyone knows, he talked about his story of mental-health problems.

"When I grew up I also had mental health problems. I suffered from OCD. That made my teenage years sometimes a living hell. All the time I had ideas running in my head.

"But now that's become my biggest strength, my best asset. My difficult days growing up, now I can use them in my life as an artist."

 

 

Every goaltender has a personal identity or favourite image they want reflected on their headgear. David Rittich's idiosyncrasy, of course, is Bart Simpson, who makes an appearance on all of his masks.

Surely, then, in the course of dealing with so many personalties over the years, there must've been moments when Gunnarsson heard a request and rolled his eyes in disbelief.

"That," he admits, amused, "can happen. Has happened. Many times. But I see it this way - the goalie is my boss so I paint what they want.

"And actually that's part of the fun, of the challenge."

Most every hockey aficionado instantly can name a favourite all-time mask: Roman Turek's "Eddie" mascot Iron Maiden take, for instance. Or Corey Hirsch's Bates Motel image from the Hitchcock classic Psycho. Lundqvist's Statue of Liberty homage. Or that classic among classics: Gerry Cheevers' black-stitches-on-white from the '60s and '70s.

Somewhat surprising, then, to discover that someone so renowned in the field doesn't really hold any special attachment to any certain mask.

 "I remember I had posters of Ed Belfour on my wall as a kid, with the eagle on his mask,'' remembers Gunnarsson. "I'm a big fan of his.

"But no, I'd say I do not have any favourites. I'm not a very nostalgic painter. I don't look back. I only look forward to the next painting."

 

 

Naturally, he designed the special one-off masks worn by Talbot and Rittich during Saturday's Heritage Classic outdoor tilt at Mosaic Stadium in Regina.

"Cam told me that he wanted it to be super-retro, super-old-school,'' recalls Gunnarsson. "So I looked at the jerseys for the game and came up with the idea of making the masks super-flat and two-dimensional. No extra effects. No 3D. Nothing like that.

"Cam also told me he did NOT want any Ghostbusters on it. So I came up with an idea and he liked it.

"But Bart Simpson is on David's."

Business, as they say, is booming down on the farm but DaveArt remains a three-person show.

"My wife is here full-time running the office and doing the paperwork and then I have one assistant taking care of all the work around, like packing and sanding."

Gunnarsson, naturally, handles all the design and artwork. No small thing when you consider how popular DaveArt has become.

"Except for my first-year in Hartford, Dave's been the guy,'' says Talbot, who favoured Cujo masks aesthetically as a kid. "So, nine years we've been together now.

"It's crazy. Absolutely nuts. If you take a look here" - he hauls his mask down from a locker shelf for inspection - "look at the small details you can't see from afar. The tiny Cs and stuff.

"The intricacies he can put into a design that people never get to see on TV but you do up close … I mean, it's incredible the amount of detail he puts into the masks.

"And he does this in, like, a day.

 "We come up with the idea and two days later he sends me a look at the full mask, completely done, and it's on its way to Bauer for the foam.

"It blows my mind.

"He sends you these sketches in pencil and you're like: 'I don't know how it's going to look.' Then it comes out looking" he studies the mask and smiles - "like that.

"And you're left asking yourself: 'How does that turn into this?'

"He's truly gifted."

 

 

A gift that continues, well over 20 years after creating his first mask for a local Swedish goalie, to enrich the designer, please the clients and wow hockey fans worldwide.

"To be able to create,'' says Gunnarsson, "is such a wonderful thing.

"I never want to repeat myself. Every day, I try and paint something new. And that's what makes this so great. Every day is fun. I'm so incredibly thankful.

"I never get tired of it.

"Every time I sit down to paint a mask, it feels like Christmas."

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