Perhaps Antonio Brown should consider becoming an NHL goalie.
The Steelers wide receiver, who not only worries about catching the football but also creating catchy cleats, would face much less resistance from the NHL than he does the NFL.
Look at the four major North American team sports. Only hockey provides an avenue for artistic expression, and that right is afforded to the goalies, one of the quirkiest groups of athletes you’ll meet.
Most goalies relish the opportunity say something special, but the idea of painting masks is not new. It dates back to Gerry Cheevers having stitches drawn on his mask in the late 1960s and later involved Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford, whose mark designer, Greg Harrison, played a trick on the former netminder.
“I like it,” Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said of the idea of expressing himself through his mask. “If you look good, you play good, right?
“You always try to find something to represent the city and yourself, to look good from far away and close up.”
It’s a collaborative process, one done with a mask designer, and it’s something that has evolved over time. Two decades ago, only a few mask painters existed. Now, business is boomin’ when it comes to this sort of airbrush art, with too many names to count.
Goaltenders’ tastes have also changed. It started out that simple was better, like the red wings that were painted over each of the eyes on Rutherford’s old mask. Then came much more intricate designs, stuff not discernible by people in the stands, before a recent boomerang back the other way.
“Simple, bold designs,” Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford said when he was in Pittsburgh for the World Cup of Hockey, talking about what he preferred on his mask. “Something you can see from far. When there’s too much detail, it looks like a blur. We stick with simple designs.”
‘They loved the mask’
Five decades ago, Cheevers took a puck to the mask in practice and had the Bruins athletic trainer draw 10 stitches on his white mask where the puck struck him. More stitches were added with each subsequent strike, and it has arguably become the most iconic painted mask in hockey history.
Rutherford’s story is a bit more complex. In junior, with the Hamilton Red Wings, Rutherford had his mask painted red — to match the goalposts and jerseys, to blend in. Red switched to blue when Rutherford became a Penguin.
When Rutherford was traded from Pittsburgh back to Detroit during the 1973-74 season, he wasn’t happy about the move and instructed Harrison to paint his blue mask white, with no other designs.
“Our first game was in Toronto,” Rutherford recalled recently. “I met Detroit in Toronto. It was Hockey Night in Canada, on Saturday night. I told my mask maker to meet me at the airport and paint my blue mask white. I said, ‘Don’t be painting it red. Just paint it white.’
“He came in the next day for the morning skate. It was in a box. He pulled it out. Had the wings over the eyes. I was really ticked. We won the game that night, 4-2. The game was broadcast across Canada. They talked about the mask. They loved the mask, and it lived on.”
A collaborative effort
Stephane Bergeron has been doing this for more than two decades and counts Crawford, Fleury and Matt Murray among three of his highest-profile clients. He’s been with Crawford and Fleury since their junior days.
Bergeron will collaborate with each goalie, asking what sort of theme he wants, and creates mockups for their approval. It’s never been a problem with Fleury or Murray, Bergeron said.
“I’m very fortunate to have Marc-Andre because he’s a really good guy, a family guy,” Bergeron said. “I’ve never had problems with him. You have to do what he wants, but I’ve been with him since he was in junior. I know him very well.
“Matt Murray is very easy to work with. Most of the time the first mockup will do the job. Some guys I will have to do three or four mockups before he decide what he wants on the mask.”
While these two are easy, it’s not always like that.
“I won’t name names, but some guys are a pain in the [butt], for sure,” said Bergeron, who has painted masks for 40 NHL goaltenders. “The next season, if he doesn’t call me back, I’m kind of happy.”
‘It’s been a wave’
The first NHL mask Bergeron painted was for former Penguins netminder Patrick Lalime. Back then, designs often featured bold colors, straight lines and simple designs.
In between, goalies’ preferences changed.
“It’s been a wave,” said mask artist David Arrigo, who’s painted several pieces that adorn PPG Paints Arena. “Even in the mid-1990s, they were more basic designs. Linear. Then the designs started becoming more detail-oriented. They became mini-murals.
“That’s been the progression over the past four or five years. Now it seems like a lot of players are starting to go back to the cleaner look, with the linear rules.”
The recent trend has almost mirrored what teams, including the Penguins, are doing with their uniforms: embracing more of an old-school approach.
“There’s a feeling goalies want something more simple,” Bergeron said. “Just like the old days in the 1970s and 1980s.”
No matter the design, the relationship between a goalie and his mask painter is a special one, with a healthy exchange of creative ideas.
Brown could probably relate, but few others in pro sports are given the ability to think about such things.
“I really do enjoy dealing one-on-one with a lot of the players,” Arrigo said. “Once you’re able to get their art out of them, you can have a lot of fun.”
Jason Mackey: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JMackeyPG.