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Unmasked: Goalies credit gear for love of position

by Kevin Woodley

VANCOUVER -- Ask NHL goaltender why he started playing the position and you might be surprised by how many of the answers involve falling for the equipment they get to wear.

From brightly painted masks to the latest innovation in pads and gloves, it seems many were attracted to goaltending as much for how they looked as the exciting saves they made.

"Of course the equipment played a role," said the Florida Panthers' Roberto Luongo, who grew up in Montreal as a fan of Edmonton Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr. "It was so cool."

Luongo isn't alone in remembering an early passion for goaltending equipment.

"People always ask me why did you become a goalie, and I think it was the pads more than anything else," said the Montreal Canadiens' Mike Condon. "It was the colors and the equipment and everything. I have so many stories about gear. Every set is in my brain; when I got them, how I got them, why I designed them like I did."

That includes an attempt to look like Dominik Hasek at age 11.

"When I was really little and first started playing goalie I had a red-and-black Cooper helmet and cage, and a red-and-black Bauer Reactor set and a black-and-red Koho stick and the old-school black-and-red Buffalo Sabres jersey," Condon said. "I remember skating around the rink thinking I was Dominik Hasek because everything matched and it looked so good."

If the equipment a favorite goalie was wearing sparked an interest in the position, getting something similar on Christmas morning cemented a lot of NHL dreams.

Luongo said it was his first pair of pads at age 13, a set of Vic McMartins his grandfather bought him. Former NHL goalie and TSN hockey analyst Jamie McLennan said his special Christmas memory was getting a waffleboard blocker and matching glove.

"When I was in peewee I got the old blocker with the holes in the front and the glove had a built-on cheater, plus they were colored so it made them even more special; matched my team," McLennan said. "They were blue, yellow and white to match St. Albert colors."

Martin Biron, another former goalie who is an analyst with the NHL Network, has similarly fond memories of goaltending equipment as Christmas gifts.

"The equipment played a role, especially growing up in the 1980s," said Biron, singling out Mario Gosselin's blue Quebec Nordiques pads. "Colored pads and masks were so cool. My first pair of goalie skates were a Christmas gift, a good old pair of Micron with the felt they slipped inside of the plastic. I went to the backyard to skate on the outdoor rink right away."

Corey Hirsch, who played 13 seasons and now is as an analyst for Sportsnet, said a Christmas gift symbolized a shift in focus.

"My first white Vaughn chest and arm [protector]," Hirsch said of the gift he received at age 12. "It was my welcome out of kid hockey to starting to get serious."

Not every goalie grew up gear-obsessed. It certainly wasn't the main attraction for the Vancouver Canucks' Jacob Markstrom growing up in Sweden, where goalies usually shared used equipment as kids. But even he had a few special gear-related Christmas memories.

"In the beginning I got an old Jofa player's helmet with a fold-down goalie cage. I remember that was huge for me," Markstrom said. "And when I was 11 I got a mask painted from DaveArt with Bart Simpson and Homer Simpson on it. That was pretty cool too."

Vancouver's Ryan Miller said he was fascinated with goalies growing up in Michigan and remembers studying every move made by Norm Foster and Bob Essensa when they played at Michigan State University. That included paying special attention to their equipment.

"I was obsessed," Miller said.

Getting new goalie gear wasn't a Christmas tradition for Miller. As a reward for maintaining good grades, his family made sure he was well-equipped going into each season, so there usually wasn't any need for upgrades. He did say he remembers one special gift when he was 11.

"When it got approved for kids to wear a one-piece mask, I got one for Christmas, a Badger," Miller said. "It was really heavy and huge, and probably overkill as far as protection. But everyone thought with goalies, if we were going to let kids wear these helmets they have to be like a tank. So you put the thing on and it was ridiculous. It certainly didn't help me move and track the puck, that's for sure. But it was exciting because I felt like an NHL goalie wearing that mask."

For a lot of young goaltenders, that feeling is enough to spark a lifelong passion for the position. And finding some new gear under the tree this Christmas might even start a path to the NHL.

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