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Masks are a billboard to a goalie's soul

by Mike G. Morreale
The design and intricate detail you see on any typical goalie mask in the NHL nowadays is simply a sign of the times.

"Back in the 1980's, I was in awe of these masks," Toronto artist Dave Arrigo told "I remember Grant Fuhr's mask and Bunny Larocque's. To me, that was still great art back then. It was the style of the time and, even today, they remain classics."

Ontario artist Frank Cipra, who got his start in 1990, has painted personalized masks for Ray LeBlanc, Ron Hextall and Fuhr, to name a few.

"I loved the masks that Gerry Cheevers and Ed Belfour wore," Cipra said. "The thing is, one quick glance at Cheevers' mask and everyone knows who wore it -- that's great art."

As decades passed, however, it seems goalies became a little more self conscious about what they were putting over their face. Sure, protection and comfort were first and foremost, but great artwork also offered a strong personal statement and inner connection.

"The goalie mask is a billboard to that player's soul," Arrigo said "It can be anything from a favorite video game to music legend."

And for others, such as Ottawa Senators rookie goalie Brian Elliott, a cartoon character would also suffice.

"Ed Belfour's eagle mask, Curtis Joseph's 'Cujo' mask and Felix Potvin's cat mask kind of set the bar," Elliott told "Now, it's kind of taken off and it's fun to just show a little bit of your personality to the fans and to everyone else.''

The arduous task of painting a goalie mask is both challenging and rewarding; taking anywhere from one-to-three weeks depending on the chosen design.

"It was only three years ago I thought I could never do anything like it because it appeared so difficult," Arrigo said. "It's totally a different type of paint and style you have to use to create the three-dimensional objects. When I had the opportunity to actually do a mask, it wasn't that hard and I had a lot of fun."

His first, in fact, was Mike Smith's Grinch mask, which he wore during his tenure with the Dallas Stars.

Cipra will never forget the mask he created for then-Montreal Canadiens goalie Jeff Hackett.

"When Jeff was traded from the Blackhawks to the Canadiens (in 1998), he asked me, 'Frank, where does every kid get their start?' I said on a pond and he said, 'That's it, go with it,' " Cipra said. "I got off the phone and thought to myself, 'How could I possibly make this happen?' So I decided to have two boys playing on a pond and Jeff loved the idea."

Who were the two boys portrayed on Hackett's helmet? They would be Cipra's sons, of course, Joel and Ian.

The process of designing a mask begins the moment the artist is approached by the team's equipment manager or other representative requesting a unique mask. After listening to ideas and retrieving input, the artist renders 5-10 rough sketches that are then presented to the goalie for review.

"While I was creating the mask for Ells (Elliott), we threw ideas back and forth via email and, from there, I began the sketch process," Arrigo said.

Elliott was interested in having an old cartoon character named Casey Jones -- an ex-hockey player who carried a golf bag full of strange weapons -- of "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" painted on his mask.

"Initial discussions were that it would be the character Casey on one side and the lead actor in the film '300' on the other," Arrigo said. After suggesting to Elliott that the two characters would clash, he agreed and, instead, opted with Arrigo's suggestion of having Jones painted on either side of his mask.

"The first steps of prepping a mask -- masking and sanding -- is my least favorite part of the job," Arrigo said. "If you don't prep properly, the paint isn't going to stick and if you don't mask properly or take the padding out, it will look like you were trying to mural the inside of the mask."

After the prep work, the artist will spray a coat of sealer white to cover any imperfections. The artwork is then sketched onto the mask using pencil and tape.

"I'll sit back a few times during this process so the final artwork will change because of inspiration of music or something I overlooked," Arrigo said.

"I loved the masks that Gerry Cheevers and Ed Belfour wore. The thing is, one quick glance at Cheevers' mask and everyone knows who wore it -- that's great art."
-- Frank Cipra

The majority of Elliott's mask is painted red and it took multiple coats before Arrigo was satisfied with its base. With the white areas already having been taped off during the initial sketches, the only other color Arrigo needed to lay down was the black section of the mask. He then reveals those areas to spray the water-based black paint before finally beginning the initial coloring of the cartoon character, Casey Jones.

The final step is the lettering, which is cut out and applied. The lettering could be done in real mirror -- a reflective paint that may be colored. Throughout this entire process, Elliott was sent pictures of the mask at each stage in case he requested any change.

"Fortunately, he was cool with everything so I was able to move on to the clear coat, which gives it an unbelievable finished, rich look," Arrigo said.

Nine days after prepping began, Elliott's mask was complete and ready for action.

Contact Mike Morreale at
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