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Tillman tribute part of LaBarbera's new mask

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Paying homage to his passion for wrestling stars and his favorite band, Metallica, on his mask in recent years was fun, but Coyotes goaltender Jason LaBarbera wanted to take his acknowledgement of heroes to another level this season.

To honor soldiers of all wars and with the hope that those now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan will return home safely as soon as possible, LaBarbera's vision and well-known mask designer David Arrigo combined to produce a unique tribute to the fighting men and women in the U.S. and Canada.

"I had fun with the music and the wrestlers, but I wanted this mask to have kind of a deeper meaning and something I felt strongly about," said LaBarbera, who will split time with newcomer Mike Smith between the pipes this season. "I'm really happy with the way this one turned out. David really captured what I wanted perfectly."

One side of the mask is dedicated to Pat Tillman, the all-American linebacker at Arizona State University and starting safety for the Arizona Cardinals who left a multi-million dollar NFL contract to enlist in the U.S. Army following the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. His brother Kevin also enlisted, and both became members of the elite Army Rangers. Pat Tillman served several tours of duty before being killed in Afghanistan in April 2004.

Photo credit: David Arrigo (Click image to enlarge)

"I wanted to make sure that all troops knew how much we respect and appreciate their sacrifices to protect our way of life," LaBarbera said. "Pat's story is well-known around the country and the world, but it's so important here in Arizona were the people see him as their own. He is a part of Arizona sports history and our nation's history and I wanted to show that.

"You walk by the Arizona Cardinals stadium (just across the street from Arena, home of the Coyotes) and you see the statue and it really impacts you what Pat Tillman did and the decision he made. Here's a guy who gave up a very lucrative profession, something he loved and did all his life, to do what he thought was right. Not a lot of people can say that."

The mask features a camouflage background of sand and brick red, Coyotes team colors, along with a picture of Tillman. The opposite side depicts an unidentified solider in action with helicopters soaring above him, with both scenes tied together by a symbolic yellow ribbon on the front, the traditional tribute to those serving overseas.

With Glendale also the home of Luke Air Force Base, the Coyotes pay tribute to a returning soldier at each of their home games.

"You see other teams around the League do things like that and it makes you feel good that the League encourages that," LaBarbera said. "These men and women still don't receive the recognition they deserve, what soldiers from all wars in our history deserve."

Tillman's uniform has been retired by the Sun Devils and the Cardinals, and Coyotes center Mike Ricci wore No. 40 – Tillman's Cardinals number – as a tribute just after Tillman's death. Coyotes captain Shane Doan and his wife, Andrea, received the 2007 Pat Tillman Community Leadership Award, honoring athletes who enhance the relationship among athletes, sports organizations and communities.

This season, LaBarbera will donate $420 for every win he records to The Pat Tillman Foundation, a national leader in providing resources and educational scholarship support to veterans, active service members and their dependents.

Why $420? LaBarbera wanted to honor the No. 42 jersey Tillman wore during his ASU career.

"Pat Tillman is symbolic of so many soldiers, not just from this war but in others, who left a lot behind to fight for our freedom," LaBarbera said. "Some didn't come home, and we honor them, but we need to let those that come home and return to life here know that we respect and admire their service."
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