Hockey masks evolved into art of deflection

Still used to protect goalie's face, masks have now become personalized works of art

At some point during the evolution of the hockey mask, function succumbed to pop art.

Any mask worth its polycarbonate shell will keep a goaltender's face from being tenderized by a 90 mph slapshot. But, importantly these days, can it also hang on a wall at the Guggenheim?

What better time to recognize hockey's best invention since the Zamboni than now, the 50th anniversary of the hockey mask?

Among the Thrashers, Kari Lehtonen may have the most elaborately decorated mask. But it, along with the rest of him, is currently on the shelf. He's out indefinitely, recovering from back surgery.

Standing in for him are the men whose wear masks featuring images of a throwback Atlanta Flames goalie and a SpongeBob with moose horns.

With his mask, Ondrej Pavelec usually pays tribute to whatever city he's playing for. He'll corner an equipment guy with some local knowledge and ask for an idea or two. For instance, when he was in Chicago with the minor league Wolves (2007-08), the Czech native bore the likeness of late Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. And he didn't know Harry Caray from Carrie Underwood.

On the Thrashers mask he began this season with – another has just been delivered to him – Pavelec devoted one side to a depiction of Atlanta as Blueland, draped in snow and ice.

Not shown was the carnage that inevitably would accompany such a freeze-out: the long lines of panicked milk-buyers at Kroger and the demolition derby on the Connector.

Pavelec sought advice about what to put on the other side of his mask from Thrashers assistant equipment manager Joey Guilmet. What represents Atlanta? So many cultural landmarks to choose from: a Varsity frosted orange; planes lined up at Hartsfield; a broken water main; a Cheetah dancer.

They went old school, with Guilmet suggesting the classic Fox Theater sign, with a twist – the marquee announcing the debut of "Gone With The Wind."

Fine, Pavelec said. But what is this Fox? (And let's not even get into Rhett or Scarlett or that whole Civil War thing).

"I had never been there, then just a few weeks ago, I was walking around the street and there was the sign," Pavelec said. "I walk in. It was beautiful. Very nice."

As for the new mask, "I love it, better colors than the old one," Pavelec said. With this one, the Czech honors the hockey history of the American South. On one side are logos of both the Thrashers and the old Atlanta Flames, on the other the crouching form of an original Flames goalie (circa 1972), Phil Myre. To give it all a sense of place, the Georgia Capitol dome looms over Myre.

The trip from concept to finished mask extended halfway around the world and back.

Meet the artist

Seems there is a Matisse of mask art. His name is David Gunnarsson, a Swede who has made a fine career out of his wild, colorful mask designs. You get a Gunnarsson mask, you know you've arrived (check out his designs at daveart.com).

The Thrashers' Johan "Moose" Hedberg so trusts Gunnarsson that he offers up his mask as a blank canvas and invites the artist to come up with something original.

"He's the best in the world, has a great imagination. He puts more thought into it than I do," Hedberg said.

The design always spins off the singular nickname. When in Dallas, Hedberg had a cowboy moose on his mask. When in Vancouver, he had a moose riding an orca. And this year in Atlanta, it's ...

... SpongeBob SquarePants Moose and his good friend Patrick Star Moose – popular Nickelodeon cartoon characters with antlers added.

It was a big hit at the Hedberg house. "My youngest daughter is a huge SpongeBob fan. They sent it to my house, and when I opened it, she let out a, 'Ahhh Spongebob!'" Hedberg said.

Nov. 1 holiday

The first mask 50 years ago was more along the lines of the unadorned Jason Voorhees/Friday the 13th look. The hockey aesthetic was a tad different in those days.

Nov. 1 is a sort of goalie's holiday, it being the date in 1959 when Montreal's Jacque Plante declared he was fed up with eating pucks and wasn't going to take it any more. As was the fashion of the time, no goaltender dared to risk his manly reputation and wear a mask, but Plante had a crude one in reserve. His coach, Toe Blake, had ordered Plante not to wear it, for fear that it would interfere with his vision.

Hit in the face by a shot during a game against the New York Rangers, Plante had to leave the ice to have the wound stitched. The Canadiens had no backup goaltender, and Plante told Blake he would not return unless he could wear the mask he had stashed back in the locker room. Given the choice of either yielding or forfeiting, Blake chose the former. Plante returned, face shielded and finished with 27 saves to beat the Rangers 3-1.

They were a tough lot back then, those stand-up goalies who had to play more upright than today's breed if only to try to keep their faces out of the line of fire.

Want to make a modern goaltender cringe? Ask him if he could imagine playing without a mask.

"No, I'd be dead," Pavelec said. "It is a different time. Puck hit you, you'd be dead."

Said Hedberg, "Those old guys who played without a mask I cannot believe the courage they had. Obviously, the shots are different today, but diving at pucks, doing that without a mask, no way.

"It's one thing being tough, another thing being dumb. I wouldn't be playing if it wasn't for the mask. The sport wouldn't be the same either."

Back in Pavelec's hometown in Czechoslovakia, his grandfather, Emanuel Cernohorsky, played goal for the local team without ever protecting his face.

Out of admiration for his tough forbearer, who died last year, Pavelec conceived of a thoroughly modern tribute: One day, he said, there will be the likeness of a mask-less goalie among the decorations on a pretty new mask.