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Sunday Long Read

Goalie mask designs evolve into artwork

Sunday, 11.02.2014 / 12:59 AM / Sunday Long Read

By Kevin Woodley - NHL.com Correspondent

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Goalie mask designs evolve into artwork
Goaltending masks have evolved into artistic storytelling of the highest order with colorful, intricate designs a seemingly mandatory part of every goaltender's wardrobe all the way down to the youth level.

A black felt pen wielded in protest is the root of the goalie mask design revolution which has changed the literal face of hockey.

Almost 50 years later, goaltending masks have evolved into artistic storytelling of the highest order with colorful, intricate designs a seemingly mandatory part of every goaltender's wardrobe all the way down to the youth level.

Gerry Cheevers had no idea he was starting a movement during a non-descript practice in the late 1960s. He had retreated from the ice after being hit in the mask with a shot. Ordered back on the ice, Cheevers filed his protest first, having a trainer draw the representation of 10 stitches on his white mask where the puck struck him moments earlier.

Each time Cheevers took a puck to the mask thereafter, more stitches were added. Before long, every inch was covered by angry black lines. The protest served as a stark visual reminder of the damage that could have been done without a mask.

It also became a defining moment in the history of goalie masks, the spark for the seemingly endless artistic and personal expression by NHL goaltenders today.

"When he started putting the stitches on people took note it wasn't just to protect your face," said Ron Hextall, a former NHL goalie and general manager of the Philadelphia Flyers. Hextall kept all his masks from 13 years in the NHL and has a few others in his collection. "It was a piece of art."

Though the faces of goalies remained completely hidden behind the fiberglass masks of that era, Cheevers' magic-marker mask opened a door for their personalities to emerge on previously blank canvases. For 46 years, goalies have been filling it with every type of art imaginable, from rudimentary patterns to intricate shape-shifting holograms.

"They get more creative as the years go on, and I think it reflects the goalie's personality," said John Garrett, whose 15-year career included NHL stops with the Hartford Whalers, Quebec Nordiques and Vancouver Canucks before turning to broadcasting in 1986. "I got to know Gerry and that was his personality. He was saying, 'Guys don't realize how much I go through here every time I get hit, well, OK, that would have been five stitches.'"

Garrett may have beaten Cheevers to the mask-decorating punch when he glued model airplane decals onto his RCAF Flyers mask as a 13-year-old playing in Trenton, Ontario; but like so many other goalies of his era, Cheevers' stitches changed everything.

"With Cheevers we saw an identity that was part of your personality," Garrett said. "You could represent your team and be a little different than the logo on your sweater."

Through the years, masks have been used to convey everything from a goaltender's pop culture preferences to personal and professional tributes, including a few memorable nods to Cheevers.

For a lot of goalies, the mask became a calling card. For some, it's the last bastion of individuality in pro sports. For others, the mask means even more.

"It becomes your identity to a certain degree," former goalie Johan Hedberg said.

Hedberg, now a goalie coach in the New Jersey Devils system, became known as "Moose" when he got his NHL break with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2001. Prior to the trade, Hedberg had been playing for the Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League.

Hedberg's baby blue Moose-themed mask made the transition from Winnipeg and stood out against the Penguins black-and-gold uniforms. Fans chanted "Mooooose" after big saves while he led Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference Final.

The nickname stuck for the rest of Hedberg's career, as did a cartoon moose created by Swedish artist David Gunnarsson for Hedberg's masks. The moose had almost as many jobs as Hedberg in the NHL. It rode an Orca during Hedberg's time with the Vancouver Canucks, appeared as a cowboy during a season with the Dallas Stars, and was, at various points, Indiana Jones, a pirate, and SpongeBob SquarePants during four seasons with the Atlanta Thrashers. The cartoon moose ended its career wearing a cape and a mask with devil horns when Hedberg finished up in New Jersey.

By the end of a 12-year career in the NHL, Hedberg was better known for the cartoon moose on his mask and his larger-than life nickname than his 161 wins.

"It was probably if not as, maybe even more, important sometimes than my actual performance," Hedberg said. "People would come up to me and tell me how much they loved the mask. The mask took on a life of its own. It was important to my career."

It was also important to his painter. Hedberg's mask was the first NHL exposure for Gunnarsson, a self-described "small-town farmer boy." This season, Gunnarsson will create almost half of the masks in the NHL from his DaveArt Designs studio in rural southern Sweden.

Like the designs themselves, the path from Cheevers' simple stitches to Gunnarsson's intricate art is far from a straight line but filled with great stories. So follow along as NHL.com traces the history of goalie art through the most memorable masks of each genre and generation since Cheevers' black marker changed everything.

Just like Cheevers and the stitches or Hedberg and the moose, a handful of goaltenders have become synonymous with the masks they wore through the years.

It's hard to imagine Ken Dryden in anything other than the mask he wore with the Montreal Canadiens. Its simple red, white and blue bull's-eye design suggesting his mask was a shooting target.

Curtis Joseph wasn't always "Cujo" during his NHL career, but once the nickname stuck it was hard to picture him without the snarling-dog image made famous by author Stephen King wrapped around his face.

Felix Potvin played for five NHL teams. Though the colors of his mask changed, he never varied from the frequently copied "cat" design first worn with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Ed Belfour employed three painters and played for five teams in his NHL career. He stuck faithfully with the "eagle" design created for him by mask maker and artist Greg Harrison for so long he became better known as "Eddie the Eagle."

"He was just Ed Belfour before I did his mask," said Harrison, who also painted Potvin's mask. "What I tried to do was give them an identity and just modify it slightly even if they changed teams. Like Potvin, everywhere he went the mask was basically the same with differences on the side and the color, but you could always tell it was Felix."

The mask became a brand for many, but not all like the individual nature some designs carry.


The nod by Alex Auld to the history of great goaltenders in Montreal included a representation of Dryden's iconic mask on the left side, but Gunnarsson also worked some of the great moments in Montreal goaltending subtly into the bold, easily recognized design, including the iconic image of Dryden thoughtfully leaning on the end of his goal stick. The tributes are more bold on the other side, including a bloodied Jacques Plante and the famous wink of Patrick Roy.


Hextall, whose collection includes masks from Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford which Hextall received as a boy and actually wore while playing, and a replica of a mask worn by legendary Philadelphia Flyers goalie Bernie Parent, always wanted a Cheevers mask. Hextall even asked Cheevers about getting his hand on an original once.

Ask Hextall about personal preferences and his tastes lean toward masks built around the city and team.

"If you want to tie yourself in there somehow, fine, but I always preferred the team logo rather than something about you," said Hextall, citing the masks worn by Dryden and Martin Brodeur as easy-to-recognize and iconic. "I still believe a goalie mask should be tied to the organization, the city or the logo rather than to the goalie himself."

It's more difficult to stay consistent when so few goalies stay with one team.

In recent years, Brodeur asked painter Sylvie Poitras of Airbrush Zap to add subtle personal touches, including images of his bulldogs Stanley and Vez, to his long-standing Devils' theme. But it's hard to imagine his primary look, with a big, pointed-tail "J" sweeping across the forehead, lasting if he signs with a new team this season.

With Brodeur no longer in New Jersey, the most iconic masks today belong to the goalies who met in the most recent Stanley Cup Final: Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers and Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings.

Lundqvist, whose masks are painted by Gunnarsson, mixes ever-changing peripheral elements with a couple easily identifiable team and personal staples: the Statue of Liberty from one of the Rangers logos, and his personal "crown" logo.

The extras have ranged from Swedish film and sports stars to Gunnarsson's personal favorite: A mask for the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series which featured pinstripes inside the crown logo and portraits of Yankees legends Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio on the side.

"It's always fun with masks that get a fun story or special story," Gunnarsson said.

Though some goalies like to mix those stories with a logo, others are solely about the team.

Quick's "Battle Armor" has become an iconic and often-copied look, but other than honoring the military on the backplate of his mask for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, Quick is only interested in continuing a team-themed look, eschewing opportunities to reference his two Stanley Cup wins. By staying consistently simple, Quick's mask has become one of the most identifiable in the NHL.

"Iconic is a pretty cool thing for a goalie," said Quick's personal painter, Steve Nash of EyeCandyAir. "It's their brand, their entity, it's them."

Gilles Gratton may not have been the first goaltender to raise the stakes on the fine details painted on a mask, but the growling "Tiger" design he commissioned Harrison to paint for him while playing for the New York Rangers in 1976-77 spawned a new genre of mask art. Since then, goalies have used masks to transform themselves into all kinds of creatures.

Gratton's original look had to be altered when goalies switched to the mask-and-cage combinations that are the standard today. That evolution from the fiberglass masks which covered the entire face actually started with a switch to helmet-and-cage combinations in the mid-1970s, a setup which originally left little room for artistic flair.

Then Harrison, who at one point was making an estimated 80 percent of masks in the NHL, added a smaller cage to a larger version of the fiberglass mask, wrapping it around the head more and securing it with elastics and a plate on the back of the head.

The improved sightlines and protection made Harrison's new mask a staple by the late-1980s. It also allowed goalies to reignite their artistic flair, only now the artists needed to work around the opening for the cage.


Painted by Jesse Acciacca of Jesse's Custom Design Airbrush Studio, the mask worn by Carter Hutton last season transformed the player into Sabretooth from Marvel Comics. The best part of the design, though, is Sabretooth is wearing a saber-tooth tiger skull mask of his own.


In the case of animal-themed masks, it required painting the mouth open around that area, often creating the illusion that the creature on the mask was swallowing the goalie inside it.

Few accomplished this new look more effectively than the mask Harrison painted for San Jose Sharks goalie Brian Hayward when the team made its NHL debut in 1991-92. With large, gleaming teeth wrapped around the edges of the cage, it looked like Hayward was peering out from the mouth of a great white, a perfect play on the Sharks nickname.

It's a theme others have used effectively, including the roaring bear employed by Andy Moog during his time in Boston, and a similar theme for Tuukka Rask, the current No. 1 in Boston. Joseph's Cujo mask was cut from the same cloth, and Canucks goalie Ryan Miller dressed himself up as a colorful buffalo head during 12 seasons with the Buffalo Sabres. Brian Elliott has been trying to establish a similar trademark look with his St. Louis Blues mask the past two seasons.

After a late-season trade to the St. Louis Blues last season, which resulted in a mask which highlighted his love for playing the guitar, Miller went back to his mask roots with a new Canucks design that combines West Coast Native art with the orca logo.

"I like to create a face for them that you can see, because you can't see their actual face," said Ray Bishop, a Michigan-based artist who has always painted Miller's masks and this year created a similar look for Al Montoya with the Florida Panthers. "I want to create images that are more iconic. You want them to be detailed but bold and clean, something you can see from the stands or on TV and really identify that goaltender with."

It doesn't always have to be animal-related. Patrick Lalime gained fame for dressing his masks up as Marvin the Martian, the cartoon character from Looney Tunes. Martin Gerber turned himself into Darth Vader on one of his masks during his time with the Ottawa Senators. Roberto Luongo wore a lot of different looks during his time with the Canucks, but the best may have been his attempt to transform into Johnny Canuck, asking long-time artist Marlene Ross to paint his face onto the mask with a toque on top and framed by a thick beard and moustache.


(Photo courtesy of Beau Rouin)
What could be better than a mask based on the Jason Voorhees character from "Friday the 13th?"

"Growing up I was able to watch all of them," Jason Bacashihua said of the horror-movie franchise. "And when it came time to paint my helmet I thought it was pretty neat: He wears the goalie mask and I'm Jason and here I am a goalie, so I put him on there. I couldn't put the knife or anything on there so I just threw the hockey stick on there. That's my thing ever since I got my first painted helmet. It's been him ever since, through all the different paint jobs."


Jason Voorhees made goalie masks scary in the first "Friday the 13th" horror movie in 1980, the same year Canucks goaltender Gary Bromley started a trend of skulls, skeletons and other scary masks which remains strong in the NHL.

The irony is Bromley, who still gets requests to autograph pictures of the realistic skull mask, never set out to inspire generations of spooky designs. Nor was he making a statement about the Canucks' Halloween-costume orange-yellow-and-black jerseys of that era. Bromley was simply trying to have some fun with his nickname, "Bones."

"It just came from me being so skinny," he said.

The skull and skeleton theme perseveres, with Tampa Bay Lightning backup Evgeni Nabokov continuing to use mirrored images of a ghoulish skin-and-bones creature he had designed for him by Minnesota-based painter Todd Miska while with the Sharks. Miska also designed the skulls that became synonymous with Miikka Kiprusoff of the Calgary Flames.

Scott Clemmensen brought back, and added horns to, his "Devil" design inspired by Potvin's masks after returning to the Devils this season. Thomas Greiss brought the nightmare-inducing creature which has long been a staple on his masks to the Penguins. And Reto Berra had artist Sylvie Marsolais of Sylabrush paint a roaring Abominable Snowman atop his Colorado Avalanche mask for this season.

The best, though, is the dark, blood-splattered play on Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Raven" on the new mask for Flames goalie Karri Ramo. If the lurking birds and skull teeth on the chin weren't enough to give you chills, Ramo had his artist, Jason Livery of HeadStrongGrafx paint a quote from the poem along the back edge: "And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor shall be lifted -- nevermore!"

"Ramo's mask is very unique with the inspiration," Livery said. "I like that Ramo thinks out of the box and lets us take that personal meaning and turn it into art."

It may remain up for debate if Corey Hirsch was the first to add a pop culture presence to his mask when he had images of Alfred Hitchcock and the Bates Motel from the movie "Psycho" painted onto his Canucks mask during the 1995-96 season. But there is no denying it resulted in a look and theme that fit the Canucks' jerseys of the day and goalie stereotypes.

"Goalies are considered a little off, so the 'Psycho' mask was perfect," Hirsch said.

Kelly Hrudey of the Kings wore a mask with the "Hollywood" sign across the forehead around the same time, and Ken Wregget's mask with the Penguins, which was inspired by Danny Devito's role as the Penguin in "Batman Returns" also appeared then and now sits in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Even if Hirsch wasn't the first, his "Psycho" mask inspired a young artist now synonymous with pop culture masks.

"When I played the NHL video game in the beginning of the '90s, back then they had a gallery with different masks in the game and I remember I really liked the Corey Hirsch mask with the themes from the 'Psycho' movie and the Bates [Motel]," Gunnarsson said.

The pop culture mask has become very popular and Gunnarsson's fine-detail work played a big role in the rise. Since first gaining notice with the cartoon moose on Hedberg's mask, Gunnarsson has painted hundreds of NHL masks and counts close to half of the League's current goaltenders as clients.

If you ask Hedberg, it's the imagination Gunnarsson possesses which sets him apart.

"His mind works a lot like a child," Hedberg said. "It sees things and fantasizes and lives in a world that can create things most of us can't even dream up. He can still make a traditional mask too, but if you want to go nuts, that's where he is the best."

Viktor Fasth saved up all his money when he was 15 years old, including asking for cash instead of presents on his birthday and at Christmas, so he could get his first mask painted by Gunnarsson. He made the one-hour drive to the DaveArt studio with his dad and now, 17 years later, is wearing a Gunnarsson mask with the Edmonton Oilers.

"I love to work with that guy, he's always full of so many great ideas," Fasth said. "I only have a couple things I want to have on my mask every year, and other than that I let him do whatever he wants because I always know it will be an amazing result."

That versatility and a love of hockey is what drew the Swedish artist to mask painting.

"To paint has been my only interest since I was 6 years old," said Gunnarsson, who uses everything from airbrush to paintbrush to a plain lead pencil to create his masks. "The best thing of painting masks is it so [many] incredibly different ideas every day, so one day I do a horror mask with scary monsters and the next day I do a funny design maybe with a moose or cartoons, and another day I stick with portraits and tributes."


A play on his nickname, Hammond asked talented up-and-coming painter Jason Bartziokas to paint the McDonald's Hamburglar character on his new mask for this season, and the Alberta-based artist decided to give it a little life by using Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Newman for the face, then dressed him up in vintage Vaughn goalie gear and posed him catching pucks, hitting the pop culture daily double.


Gunnarsson's pop culture masks vary widely, and he has created retail series based on Marvel Comics characters and the "Star Wars" movies for manufacturers including Bauer.

In the NHL this season, the pop culture masks include the "Optimus Reim" Transformers mask worn by James Reimer of the Maple Leafs; a Ned Flanders theme for Peter Budaj of the Winnipeg Jets; a "Tombstone" mask for Devan Dubnyk of the Arizona Coyotes which includes Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday and Melman the giraffe from the animated "Madagascar" movies; a tribute to Swedish metal band In Flames for Ottawa Senators goalie Robin Lehner; another in a series of "Ghostbuster" masks for Cam Talbot of the Rangers; and a play on "The Lego Movie"' for Frederik Andersen of the Anaheim Ducks that ties perfectly to the goalie's Danish roots.

Given all that, it should come as no surprise to learn Gunnarsson had a small cinema built into his custom studio so he can watch movies while he works.

"I love movies, so I always have a movie on when I paint," he said.

The pop culture masks in the NHL have never been limited to movies.

Jason LaBarbera has used his masks to show his love for Metallica and wrestling over the years, with WWE star CM Punk making a prominent appearance on a mask David Arrigo painted for him two years ago with the Coyotes, and a 2010 mask that included Vince McMahon, Bret "The Hitman" Hart, the Undertaker and Shawn Michaels.

Craig Anderson shows off his love of Corvettes on his Senators mask. Luongo used to include the Pink Panther on every Panthers mask during his first go-round. Josh Harding featured his favorite band, Rascal Flatts, on one mask. Sean Burke and Robert Esche each featured his favorite musicians on masks while playing for the Flyers. Masks based on the "Rocky" movies have long been a favorite in Philadelphia, and current No. 1 Steve Mason incorporated the infatuation with all things zombie-related into recent masks, asking local artist Franny Drummond of Paint Zoo to turn famous historical citizens and teammates into the flesh-eating monsters.

It seems the only limit to pop culture subjects is the imagination.

"It such a versatile type of painting," Gunnarsson said.

It's fitting to end where it all started, with a nod to the mask of retired goalie Steve Shields, which was a nod to Cheevers. But the tribute masks in the NHL go well beyond honoring other goaltenders.

For some it can be a shout out to family members, lost friends or favorite bands.

Chris Mason's use of the Iron Maiden Eddie on so many of his masks was listed as the all-time great under the pop culture masks, and though they were largely about Mason's favorite band, those masks also were a tribute of sorts for his longtime painter, Nash of EyeCandyAir.

Nash was inspired to become a painter in large part by his love for the art displayed on rock 'n' roll albums and goalie masks when he was growing up, and his favorite artist on the music side was Derek Riggs, who created the iconic Eddie mascot which graced the album covers for Iron Maiden.


The timing was perfect when Cedrik Desjardins asked artist David Leroux of Diel Airbrush to create a tribute to retiring New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter on this season's mask for the New York Rangers and Hartford Wolf Pack. With a Frank Sinatra tribute on the other side, and it would be a shame if Desjardins doesn't get called up to New York at some point this season to show off the mask to the crowd at Madison Square Garden.


"Derek was a big inspiration for me and I've gotten to know him personally, so to get his permission to use his artwork on Mason's masks was an honor," Nash said.

Even better, Nash said, is working with goalies like Mason, who get really involved in the process, adding personal touches like a drawing done by his daughter Avery to the mask he is wearing while playing in Germany this season. Rather than hang her picture on the fridge, Mason had it recreated on the backplate of his new mask.

"The piece of art done by Mase's daughter, to me that's more thrilling to try to reproduce something that came from her mind than doing whatever I want," Nash said.

Some goalies wear their tributes up front.

Mike Smith's Coyotes mask last season, painted by Arrigo, featured his two young sons riding an Acme rocket with Wile E. Coyote, and he let them create the backplate themselves with finger paints. Harding has done some incredible tributes on his Miska-painted masks with the Minnesota Wild, ranging from the nod to Rascal Flatts, to a collage homage to goalie masks of the past; to an awareness and fundraising mask to help his sister, Stephanie Le Bruno, after she was diagnosed with breast cancer during the 2006-07 season.

Other goalies have kept the personal stuff on their backplates.

Miller has the words "Matt Man" with a halo to honor his late cousin, Matt Schoals, who passed away because of complications from a bone marrow transplant.

After Pavol Demitra was killed in the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl airplane crash in the Kontinental Hockey League in 2011, countryman and former Olympic teammate Jaroslav Halak had a backplate in Demitra's honor painted immediately by Jason Livery at HeadStrongGrafx and wore it while playing for the St. Louis Blues.

"I will never forget the look of some of the Blues players that knew Demitra when I came to the practice rink to present Jaro with that backplate," Livery said. "Many teared up. It was surreal knowing I was able to create something so meaningful to so many."

For all the incredibly detailed masks on display in the NHL this season, there has been a trend back to the big, bold roots of mask painting during the past few seasons.

Canadiens goalie Carey Price, who takes part in rodeo calf roping in the summer, has featured everything from silhouettes of cowboys on horses to country singer George Strait on masks painted by Arrigo. Price now prefers Canadiens-themed masks by Gunnarsson.

Others have followed suit with masks that are more easily identifiable from the upper deck or while watching on TV.

Kari Lehtonen of the Stars went from themes like "Kill Bill" and "Tombstone" movies, to Chuck Norris and Clint Eastwood tributes, to having his masks painted with a Dallas Stars logo theme by former Finnish goalie and teammate Joni Hallikainen.

It's a trend welcomed by Harrison, who credited the new wave of young artists for their incredible skill with an airbrush but said "there is way too much going on."

"I call them the drug-induced, side-of-the-van paint jobs," he said.

Harrison's views on mask design are somewhat fitting, because some see the pushback as a nod to him.

"I loved everything Harrison did," Nash said. "When I watched guys wearing his masks, they had this aura about them. It captivated me. The mask itself was a piece of art."

Goalie masks have been that way ever since Cheevers scribbled on that first one with black marker.

Kevin Woodley is a contributor for NHL.com, the managing partner of InGoal Magazine and, of course, a goaltender with a custom painted mask of his own. Designed by Marcus Power and painted by Jason Livery at HeadStrongGrafx, it features a play on his nickname "Woody," with Woody the Woodpecker stopping pucks in vintage gear on one side and doing his best Jacques Plante impersonation on the other.

Custom images by Catherine Smith


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