The Fine Art Of Stopping A Flying Puck

May 27, 2019

When the St. Louis Blues take the ice Monday, they may look a little green. This series against the Boston Bruins marks the first time the franchise has skated in a Stanley Cup Final since 1970. In other words, nearly two and a half decades before their rookie goaltender, Jordan Binnington, was even born.

At the same time, for all his youth, the team’s 25-year-old netminder will be taking part in the same decades-old tradition as his veteran Bruin counterpart, Tuukka Rask. Both goalies will don masks drenched with vibrant color and baroque twists on their team icons. For Binnington, that means a hazy glimpse of St. Louis’ Arch-adorned skyline; for Rask, that means a snarling golden bear.

Both masks also represent something the uninitiated may not have expected to find on an ice surface: art, history — even high fashion, of a sort.

“I will tell you that it’s a huge thing for a goalie to look good,” says former goaltender Ron Tugnutt, who played for eight teams across his 16-year NHL career. “A lot of children want to grow up to be goalies because they see these masks.”

Young hockey fans of the 1990s had little trouble recognizing Tugnutt’s masks. For about a decade leading up to his retirement in 2004, his were splashed with team colors — a nod to the Molsons, the brewing dynasty that owned the Montreal Canadiens, the team he played for when Tugnutt got the idea. But he brought the design with him wherever he went, just swapping in new team colors each time and rendering his mask readily recognizable for hockey fans.

Plenty of other goalie masks — from Curtis Joseph’s rabid dog (for Cujo, naturally) to Eddie Belfour’s eagle — have also gotten the household name treatment. So many, in fact, that 325,000 people annually flock to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto for an exhibit that displays historic goalie masks with an awed respect befitting precious artifacts.

While the focus remains trained on the players protected by these flashy blends of art and athletics, the cottage industry of artists that has grown up around their production gets little attention. By one hockey historian’s estimation, about a dozen major artists work with goaltenders in the NHL and NWHL, and dozens more ply their trade at other levels, such as minor leagues and youth hockey.

And those artists often develop just as intimate a connection with the mask they’ve created as the player who wears it.

“Any mask that I’ve done, there’s a story behind it,” says Frank Cipra, the artist who designed Tugnutt’s distinctive headgear. “There’s a key element in the design that each player wanted that meant something to them. And it meant something to me that I could carry that on for them and make them happy and proud.”

These days he says he doesn’t do masks for NHL players anymore — he prefers the slower pace of the lower levels — but in the early 1990s, not long after he got started, Cipra was one of just a handful of artists who designed just about every mask in the league. And that meant a whole lot of work.

“I was working, no kidding, 24/7. It was just insane. The orders were coming from all NHL teams, the American [Hockey] League, U.S. college teams, the Olympics,” he recalls. “It was just nonstop.”

This sudden increase in demand could be traced to a commensurate increase simply in the number of goalies, according to Jim Hynes, who with Gary Smith wrote a history of goalie masks called Saving Face.

After the early ’90s NHL expansions, “you have minor league teams, you have 26 NHL teams — two goalies per team. All kinds of work for mask painters,” Hynes explains. “So you have new guys popping up now, you have companies getting into the business of making masks. Some of them could be mass-produced to be sold to goalies of all levels and ages, and the pros were getting their masks custom-made.”

Some artists — including Cipra — had deals with major equipment manufacturers, while others operated independently. Eventually, an influx of new artists raced in to meet the demand. That includes David Gunnarsson, the Swedish designer responsible for Binnington’s mask and dozens of others, as well as David Arrigo, who designed new masks for every goalie in the NWHL during the women’s pro league’s inaugural year.

“There was maybe only two or three guys, really, doing it 20 years ago,” says Arrigo, who has been in the business about a decade and a half now. “Today, I can name you off a dozen artists and they’re all pure goalie mask artists.”

That’s a far cry from the equipment industry of Gerry Cheevers‘ era.

Cheevers was in net for the Bruins when they beat the Blues in that 1970 Stanley Cup Final, the last time the Blues made it this far. He’s also just happens to be credited with with being the first men’s ice hockey player to paint his headgear, during a practice in the late ’60s. He didn’t have much to choose from. It was less than a decade since the Montreal Canadiens’ Jacques Plantes — who won five consecutive Stanley Cups and was inducted into the Hall of Fame — pioneered the use of goalie masks in men’s ice hockey, and just a thin bit of fiberglass was still about all Cheevers had.

So after Cheevers took a particularly nasty shot in the face during practice, the legend goes, he left the ice to head to the locker room and collect himself.

“When the coach comes in and tells him to get back out there, Cheevers grabs a magic marker and draws a line of stitches where the puck had hit him. Afterwards, he continued to do that — every time the puck hit him in the face he’d have a trainer or himself draw stitches where it hit him, until the thing was pretty much completely covered with them,” Hynes says.

“That was a good idea of what his face might have looked like if he hadn’t been wearing that mask,” Hynes adds. “It became his trademark.”

The art of mask decoration has evolved quite a bit since those early days. With a big boost from trailblazers such as Greg Harrison, Cheevers’ novelty gradually became the norm among goalies, and the intricacy of the art multiplied with the number of goalies who wore it.

As time went on, there were sharks baring their teeth and Lady Liberty and Godzilla itself, all painted on surfaces designed to block a rubber object flying at speeds regularly topping 90 mph. There was even Carey Price’s Arrigo-designed tribute to his Canadiens forebear — a deeply unsettling depiction of Jacques Plante wearing his mask … painted atop Price’s own mask.

(Seriously, just look at it. But maybe not while small children are present.)

The increasing intricacy makes for much more of a challenge these days — including some rather intense conversations between goaltender and artist that could sometimes go so far as to resemble a session with a therapist.

“Years ago, I would tell them, ‘I want to get into your head.’ And that freaks a lot of people out,” Arrigo laughs.

He says he’s adopted a mellower approach lately, but the crucial question remains the same for him and every other artist: What does the player really want?

“What happens is, we’ll get into it. We’ll get into arguments like crazy,” Arrigo says of one of his clients, an NHL goalie with very particular ideas of what he wants.

“Then his wife will get involved and she’ll play between us and all this stuff. And then when we get to the final concepts — and I hate saying this to him — but it’s like, ‘This is what I suggested in the first place!’ And he says, ‘No it’s not.’ And on and on.”

At other times, these conversations can spark some incidental magic.

Corey Hirsch, a former NHL goalie and current color analyst for the Vancouver Canucks, recalls having worked with Cipra during a particularly dark time in his life. It was in the mid-’90s, after Hirsch had been brought in to play for the Canucks, and the young man was suffering from a mental illness it took him years to have diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder. As he revealed many years later, his struggles even drove him to the brink of suicide.

So, when Cipra and Hirsch settled on a Halloween theme — “He called me up and said he wanted something dark, almost evil,” Cipra remembers — it struck a nerve when someone brought up the house from Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hirsch quickly decided.

“I didn’t know what I was going through right at the time. I had no idea. I just thought I was going crazy — really, like anybody else would. So the Psycho house was like, ‘Huh, how fitting is this,’ ” Hirsch recalls.

The mask became so famous, it’s now featured in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

“It makes for a really amazing reminder of what I went through, because I’ve been healthy 20 years now since I got therapy and help. Sometimes these days I don’t even remember how bad it was,” he says. “So it’s a great reminder of where I came from at one point in my life, and where I am today.”

Ron Tugnutt, the goalie known for his splash design, also keeps his masks — roughly a dozen of them — as markers of memory, albeit it in a different way.

“I have a son that was born while I played in Portland, Maine, so that mask is in his bedroom, and I have a son from my time in Anaheim, Calif., and that mask is in his bedroom,” Tugnutt says.

But don’t think that this bond between a goalie and his mask, as strong as it may be, is unbreakable. Even art bows before that great god, superstition.

“If pucks start going in, it doesn’t matter,” he laughs. “You take your helmet off, you take a look and you go, ‘I need another one. What am I doing wearing this one?’ ”

In that case, it’s time to get your friendly neighborhood mask artist back on the line.

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