People wear masks to protect or hide their face from the dangers of the outside world. They can be used to disguise features or conceal characteristics of its user, hiding expressions beneath the veneer.
For a hockey goaltender, the mask serves both purposes. It is built to protect the face from 100 mph slap shots, serving as a shield. It also is an agent of anonymity for the men who perform under the spotlight of the most glaring position in the sport.
So, it comes as a comic twist that goalies are often more recognized by their masks than their actual features. If the National Hockey League’s netminders were called into a police lineup, it might be difficult to recognize more than a handful by face. When a goaltender takes off his helmet, he can blend into a crowd like the nameless masses waiting at a busy subway station.
A goaltender’s mask serves as a literal mixed metaphor: it protects them from the outside world, while the paint job separates them from the rest of the laundry. The paint job can serve as a window into the man’s personality or represent what he finds important in his life, outside the game.
For goaltender Devan Dubnyk, his Minnesota Wild mask is a brief glance at his past, present and future. On the front is a large emblem of the team. The sides are documented with snaking animations of a fierce giraffe, his nickname from junior hockey. On the back plate is a picture of his 19-month-old son, Nathaniel.
Since the birth of his son, Dubnyk has stamped a sketch of the boy on the back of his helmet. The Wild lid is the fifth time Nathaniel’s likeness has appeared on a different mask. Collectively they have become a scrapbook documenting the first year and a half of his son’s life.
“I’ve basically got to paint pictures of his first year of development on the back of my helmets,” Dubnyk laughed. “I have one from him being born to a year and a half now.”
It was a difficult first year of parenthood for the 28-year-old netminder.
Midway through the 2013-14 season, Dubnyk was traded from the team that selected him in 2004 with the 14th pick of the National Hockey League Entry Draft. On January 15, 2014, the backstop was moved from the Edmonton Oilers to the Nashville Predators in exchange for forward Matt Hendricks. After playing in only two games for Nashville, netminder Pekka Rinne was coming off Long-Term Injured Reserve, and he was traded yet again to the Montreal Canadiens for future considerations. He was assigned to the Habs’ AHL affiliate, the Hamilton Bulldogs.
“It was a difficult start to the year and frustrating for all of us that were in Edmonton. And then to get moved and to be excited for a new start and things didn’t go great in Nashville, I didn’t play well,” Dubnyk said. “Then it kind of just dragged on. I got sent to Hamilton and just couldn’t really seem to get anything going and it just went on and on.”
The netminder’s confidence wavered and rather than being excited about coming to work every day, he was reduced to looking forward to the offseason.
“I was just waiting for the year to end, so you can hit the reset button and move on and forget about it,” Dubnyk said. “It certainly felt like that was never going to come.”
After a winter of struggle, the goalie found summer solace in a sunny local. On July 1, he signed a one-year deal with the Arizona Coyotes and a chance at the new start he was looking for.
When Dubnyk arrived at training camp in Arizona, like a retiree with aching bones relocating from colder climates, he immediately found comfort in the desert. After a season of struggle and bouncing around, he had a renewed sense of normalcy during the camp and preseason.
The Coyotes put their full confidence in him, which allowed the goaltender to concentrate on stopping pucks.
“There were no worries about last year, and that’s thanks to how I was treated by that organization coming in and the confidence that the coaches and my teammates put in me right from the second I showed up in town,” Dubnyk said. “I’m very grateful for that and was able to just go play hockey.”
With a renewed sense in his game, the 28-year-old proved that he was still a viable option in net. Dubnyk posted a 19-9-5 record, .916 save percentage and 2.72 goals-against average with the Coyotes.
From ending the season in the minors to earning wins in the NHL, the single-season turnaround
was dramatic. It might’ve been lessons he learned as a youngster that helped him rebound and move forward.
A few inches to the left of the photo of his son, Dubnyk’s mask is marked with a pink ribbon. The decal is in honor of his mother, Barb, who is a breast cancer survivor. When he was a teenager, she was diagnosed with the disease.
“She changed me a lot,” Dubnyk said. “Just watching her go through that and seeing how strong she was. I’ll never forget that.”
The netminder said that his mom, even when she was sick, always put the family ahead of herself. She never wanted Devan or his brother, Dave, or sister, Christianne, to see her ill.
“Luckily for me, she is a fighter and she was able to beat it,” Dubnyk said. “It’s gone now and it’s like she never had it.”
When the goaltender was struggling last season, he used his mother’s example as a reflection on his own outlook. If she was able to fight through cancer, surely he could rebound, too. Dubnyk told himself that he had to keep going, enjoying each and every day, regardless of the situation.
“I wanted to be able to continue to let her watch some games going forward, so that was some extra motivation, too,” Dubnyk laughed.
The two tributes on his helmet indicate how important family is for the netminder. As a youngster, the family moved often because his father, Barry, was transferred or promoted to new positions with IBM. They were a tight-knit unit.
“When you move that much you kind of just have each other,” Dubnyk said. “So we were able to be close and we still are.”
Now, he has a family of his own to take care of. His wife, Jen, and son joined him in Minnesota in early February. Of course, they had to unpack their winter clothes after spending the first four months of the season in the warmer climate of Arizona.
The life of a professional athlete means plenty of time on the road and away from loved ones. Getting traded midseason, twice, added another wrinkle in the difficulties of building stability with an infant at home.
“Last year was tough. It was about two weeks after I got traded to Nashville that I didn’t see them. They came to Nashville, which was actually good. They were there for an entire month and we had a good schedule because it was over the Olympic break,” Dubnyk said. “But after the trade from Nashville to Montreal and then down to Hamilton, I didn’t see them for 10 weeks. I can’t really explain what that’s like. When he’s that age, it’s just something I hope I never have to go through again.”
The goaltender was caught off guard when he learned he was traded from Arizona to Minnesota. However, he understood the situation. He was on a one-year deal and the Coyotes had Mike Smith locked up on a multi-year contract.
He was driving home from practice and missed the call from Arizona General Manager, Don Maloney. By the time he spoke to Maloney, he had figured out what was happening. Six hours later the 6-foot-6 netminder was on a red-eye flight to join the Wild in Buffalo.
“I was jammed in the front seat. I guess it’s better than having a seat against my knees,” Dubnyk said.
“I might’ve dozed off for an hour or two, but that was pretty much the total of my sleep for that night.”
The weary goaltender was joining a depleted Wild team. The club had lost six straight games, including a 7-2 trouncing in Pittsburgh two nights prior.
After participating in the team’s morning skate, Wild Head Coach Mike Yeo announced that Dubnyk would start that night against the Sabres. If it was somewhat surprising, given his travel accommodations, it was even more unexpected when he met with the media shortly after practice. For the most part, goaltenders don’t speak with scribes on game days. However, he doesn’t mind talking about the upcoming opponent.
“I’ve always tried to be relaxed on a game day and talking about the game, I’ve never had a problem with it in the morning,” Dubnyk said. “I think it’s good to have a relationship with the media and have a mutual respect. I started doing it in Edmonton without thinking about it and now I’m comfortable with it.”
In his first game with the Wild at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center, Dubnyk looked just as at ease in net as speaking to cameras in front of Minnesota’s Forest-Green-road backdrop earlier in the day. In his debut, he pitched an 18-save shutout, as the Wild rolled to a 7-0 win over the Sabres.
“I made sure I told everybody what my flight had been so everybody was ready to go to play hard for me that night,” Dubnyk chuckled. “Luckily for me that was an impressive effort by the guys. They made sure it was 2-0 before I really had to do anything.”
With the new backstop in tow, Dubnyk won the next game on Hockey Day Minnesota against his former Arizona mates, 3-1.
Following the NHL All-Star Break, the Wild went on an impressive tear to vault back into the Western Conference playoff race. The club rattled off six straight wins with Dubnyk starting every game, setting a career high for consecutive victories. According to Elias Sports Bureau, he became the fastest netminder to post four shutouts (nine games) with a club among goalies who debuted in the expansion era (1967-68 or later). For his efforts he was named the NHL’s Third Star and First Star in consecutive weeks. He was also named the NHL First Star of February, becoming the first Wild to be named a First Star of the month award.
In front of Dubnyk, the Wild seemed to have a rejuvenated sense of confidence. The team was playing like it had earlier in the year, before the holiday slide.
“It probably starts with him in the sense that he’s making a key save at a key time,” Yeo said. “He’s got a sense of control, calmness back there that has trickled through to the rest of the group.”
Throughout the hot streak, Dubnyk maintained the same levelheaded mindset he’s always brought to the rink. After using a vinyl wrap on his old Coyotes mask for his first eight games with the Wild, Dubnyk debut his custom Minnesota bucket on Saturday, Feb. 7 against the Colorado Avalanche. To some, this might’ve been an odd time for a new helmet. After all, the goaltender was coming off a 3-0 shutout of the Chicago Blackhawks.
“I’m not superstitious,” Dubnyk said. “It’s the same helmet, as soon as I put it on. There are more important things for me to be thinking about on the ice.”
For Dubnyk, he’s been able to focus on hockey in Minnesota. The acquisition by the Wild had a much different vibe than the trades from a year ago.
“That trade, was almost exactly a year to the day, when I ended up coming here. It’s been crazy. I spent the first 10 years of my career with one organization and then all of a sudden it was up to five,” Dubnyk said. “This year was good though. When you think about it, it seems crazy, but for me, this year has been so much different. Last year was more negative feelings around the moves. It was almost like getting moved rather than getting traded for. There were a lot of positives leaving Arizona; I made a lot of great friends there and got an opportunity to play some great hockey. And then to come to a team where everybody seemed excited to have me here, it doesn’t feel anything like last year.”
The goaltender has given the Wild stability in net as it continues to fight for a spot in the postseason in the tough Western Conference. In a symbiotic relationship, his time in Minnesota could provide permanency for his career and his family.
“Hopefully, it’s just year-to-year from now on,” Dubnyk laughed when describing his latest helmet and his son’s picture on it. “One each year is plenty.”