Goalie mask art: behind the brush

Andrew Campoli was a 12-year-old goaltender in the Greater Toronto Hockey League the first time he had his mask custom painted.

Now 22, he will soon “retire” his fifth helmet, a blue-and-white homage to his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs, as it joins its four predecessors on his basement mantle.

There was one season that Campoli can remember playing without mask artwork, but he was on a nine-month waiting list for his painter’s services at the time.

Steve Nash, the self-taught artist who runs his business under the moniker EYECANDYAIR, crafted Campoli’s most recent two projects.

Campoli was so pleased with Nash’s work on his Leafs mask, that he recently returned to the artist, with freshly-purchased headgear and photos of iconic Montreal Canadiens’ goaltenders Jacques Plante and Georges Vezina, to be incorporated into the composition.

“I just got it [the new mask] two weeks ago,” Campoli said on March 29, at a coffee shop in Toronto.

“I played my first game in it last week. I don’t know what Steve does to the masks, but the first game I play using the [painted] masks, I play amazingly well.”

Before the artist works his magic, Nash and his clients collaborate during an interview, with customers often bringing sketches, photos and well-thought-out ideas.

“I like to generally just get their concepts, colours and placement of things,” said Nash, at his Woodbridge studio. “I then ask for artistic freedom to pull it all together.”

“I can put my own spin on things, and I can guarantee it will come out pretty much the way they want.”

A goaltender himself, the mask designer began his career 14 years ago, deciding they were the perfect canvas for his talented brushstrokes.

When he started, the airbrush industry looked much different than it does today as there were only a “handful” of known-quality painters.

Dan Lessard, the Windsor-based artist and operator of Rembrants Brush, was in a small group of painters when he made the decision to airbrush in the early 1990s.

“When I started, I knew that for a long time I was one of the only guys in this area,” Lessard said. “A few years back, it began to grow with the excitement of customizing motorcycles, although that has settled down recently with the change in the economy.”

New approaches

As the competition has swelled, some artists are looking at new avenues for applying their craft.

“I focus a lot on motorcycles. I have several on the go,” Lessard said. “I tattoo as well, and am two years into that gig.”

Erich Ferguson, a nearly two-decade mask, motorcycle and car airbrush veteran, acknowledges the boom in competition, but has witnessed a meteoric rise in the amount of goalies in search of paintwork.

“They start getting their masks painted a lot earlier now than they used to,” Ferguson, who operates under the banner Resurrection Custom Painting, told the Observer.

“Years ago it was few and far between to do a junior mask, but it’s now fairly common that young kids will get their masks painted.”

Don’t try this at home

Campoli's mask, painted by Nash, is a blue-and-white homage to his beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. (Rory Barrs/Toronto Observer)

Masks are coloured using urethane paints, the same durable and chip-resistant substances used in the automotive industry.

Airbrushing is the predominant method of painting, but some artists will additionally use regular brushes and pencils for outlines and fine detail.

Nash, at his EYECANDYAIR office that is decorated with wall-to-wall goalie memorabilia, stressed the significance of painting masks with the right products and doing it with extreme care.

“A lot of people are breaking into the industry, not knowing all the details, and are hitting the masks with craft paints,” Nash said. “Certain chemicals don’t mix with other chemicals.”

Artists can become factory authorized, and advertise it, by sending paint and work samples to helmet manufacturers. Customers can verify the trustworthiness of a painter by checking their credentials.

“You are supposed to be approved,” Lessard said. “That was a thing the manufacturers pushed in place, but I don’t know if they are still pushing it.”

Coating a mask with improper paints can not only leave a client with an aesthetically displeasing helmet, but the fibreglass, plastics and composite materials can be weakened and therefore made unsafe for use.

Green initiatives have not looked past the airbrush industry, as a movement towards waterborne paints is under way.

Environment Canada has imposed regulations that limit the amount of volatile organic compound (VOC) emitted by the coatings, and VOC-compliant products are now a legal requirement for painters.

The big show

Boston Bruins team trainer John “Frosty” Forristall is credited with pioneering mask art, when he famously inked black stitch-patterns onto Gerry Cheevers’s previously white face shield in the 1970s.

By the mid-1970s, Doug Favell, Ken Dryden and Glenn “Chico” Resch had incorporated colour schemes into their masks to match team uniforms.

What ultimately opened the floodgates for the complexity of illustrations seen in modern helmets, was the lion design that New York Rangers goalie Gilles Gratton donned in 1976.

Professional goalies quickly warmed to the thought of adding personality to their masks, and during the ‘80s and ‘90s, the industry transformed dramatically.

NHLers are now the trendsetters in the mask-art universe, and having your work displayed by professional players, is the ultimate compliment for many painters.

“At first, I was really excited about it … and still am because they are professionals, displaying your work on TV,” said Nash, who has painted masks for Boston’s Tim Thomas, Carolina’s Cam Ward and Atlanta’s Chris Mason.

“But whether it’s for a professional or beer-league guy, I put the same amount of passion into both.”

Goalies at the NHL level will often select their artists through manufacturers or equipment managers, so connections play a vital role in getting the pro gigs.

“There are some goalies who have used the same painter since junior hockey and maintain that loyalty to the painter,” said Ferguson, whose professional resume includes Florida’s Tomas Vokoun and Dallas goalie Andrew Raycroft.

“But, a lot of it is the equipment managers, manufacturers and who you know.”

The average job for a mask artist is not for a professional, whose organization would cover the cost of equipment, but a run-of-the-mill goaltender making a substantial investment.

“There is a different level of appreciation by the customers,” said Stephanie Pasquariello, who handles customer relations for Nash. “The NHL guys love their masks, but they have camera-friendly restrictions, while a non-pro can really put their personality on the mask.”

With Plante covering his right ear, and Vezina his left, Campoli couldn’t be more satisfied with his decision to add another painted mask to his collection.

“It was like being given a new-born baby,” Campoli said. “I was just excited and very overwhelmed.”

Clients aren’t the only ones who relish in the unveiling moment — the artists love seeing a customer’s tension transform to ecstasy the second they catch a glimpse of their work.

“Everybody is ‘Wow!’,” Ferguson said. “My favourite part is when the customer picks it up. I like every customer to leave with an ear-to-ear grin.”

One of a kind

“You have to be crazy,” to strap on the pads and willingly face an onslaught of frozen rubber, said Campoli, the former Ontario Hockey League draft pick.

It takes a “special” person to gleefully act as the last line of defence, night in and night out. It is not something that most people were meant to do.

While the forwards are bantering in the face-off circles, and defenceman are interactively battling for position in the corners, the goalie remains alone, anxiously shifting from side-to-side, but always within a few feet of their sacred net.

Thinkers, loners, oddballs and often superstitious, goalies have an established reputation to match the uniqueness of their position on the team.

In being the only skater allowed to personalize their masks with images of viscous animals, cartoon characters, family members and rock bands, the goaltender’s detachment from the players is epitomized.

“A lot of the goalies are eccentric and they can express themselves rather blatantly with the small canvas that they have,” Nash said. “They are quiet, focused and if you want to know more about them, just look at their paint job.”

Ferguson believes goaltenders are a different breed.

“That is their way to create their own identity. It is a representation of them,” said the man who painted the Canadian skeleton helmets for the Vancouver Olympics.

The choices are endless when the time arrives to dream up paint schemes, and because each job is so unique, no two are alike, Ferguson said.

Still, trends do emerge, and the artists are taking notice.

Ferguson has received an influx of requests for chrome imagery, and Lessard, who has worked on masks for Edmonton’s Nikolai Khabibulin and Colorado’s Peter Budaj, is incorporating more “candy-coloured paint” and “bling” into his projects.

Vivid portraits are becoming increasingly popular, allowing goalies to incorporate authentic-looking hockey heroes, musicians and celebrities into the patterns.

“It used to be about aggressiveness and having a mean image to scare the opposition,” Ferguson said. “I don’t do nearly as many snarling animals anymore; people have opened up to the possibilities of having whatever you want.”

“Some people prefer it be kept very simple: two or three colours, and a team or equipment colour, but very basic.”

You get what you pay for

Cost for a made-to-order airbrushing begins at roughly $500, and the average spent is between $650 and $700, depending on the painter.

Select artists charge more for portraiture, especially when a handful of divergent pictures are incorporated. In these cases, a goalie should anticipate spending at least $800, and even north of $1,000.

Each colour added to a mask will increase the amount of work required by the painter, every tone put on raises the surface by a minuscule degree.

“As you spray on multiple colours, you can feel the edge on the mask between the paint divisions,” Ferguson said. “You have to bury that with a clear coating, in order to get a smooth finish.”

A personalized mask offers more than just a professional looking appearance, but it may be a notion that only a goalie can understand.

“It gives them an extra little piece of armour,” Nash said. “That’s why I love it, because it singles out one guy from the whole team.”

Campoli considers tattoos to be the closest comparison, because both can be extremely intimate forms of non-verbal communication.

“For the quiet and shy guys, it is a way to express themselves without telling a story,” Campoli said consciously. “I get asked all the time by other goaltenders, ‘Where did you get your mask painted?’ ”

While coaches and players debate game strategy and tactics, the goalie remains focused on the never-ending task of stopping the puck from crossing the goal-line.

Ferguson tributes the painted mask as a conduit of goalie emotion, and being a rare forum for a player, who is often praised for their composure, to display outward passion.

“They all have to dress the same,” said Ferguson, whose biggest influence was fantasy artist Frank Frazetta. “It is the only way for them to create their identity; it is the one thing that is their choice alone.”

Much like tattooing, mask art can become an addictive hobby, and with an endless stream of ideas, there are no limits to what can be inked.

“I will get another mask [painted] for sure,” Campoli said emphatically. “I want to put something on there that nobody would ever think of.”

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