Day 6

Inside the colourful world of goalie-mask art

Goalie masks boast some of the most beautiful and creative designs in sports — and it's due in large part to the work of talented artists like Sylvie Marsolais of Sylabrush and Steve Nash of Eyecandy Air.

From complex portraits to colour-changing paints, NHL goalies love to get creative with their masks

What's the process when it comes to designing a mask like those belonging to Tim Thomas (left) or Andrei Vasilevskiy? Goalie mask artists Steve Nash and Sylvie Marsolais walk us through. (Paul Bereswill/Getty Images, Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Most people wouldn't appreciate having lightning-fast shots taken at their artwork worth hundreds — even thousands — of dollars. But in the NHL, it's expected.

A lion can be seen on this Andrei Vasilevskiy mask. Sylvie Marsolais included the lion as a homage to Vasilevskiy's nickname, 'Big Cat.' (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

"We know it's part of the job," said goalie-mask artist Sylvie Marsolais. "We know they're going to [get] some little chips here and there."

Marsolais is one of a tight-knit group of NHL goalie-mask painters. She's been running her company, Sylabrush, with her partner, Alexandre Mathys, since 2009. She does all of her mask commissions from her studio in Sainte-Marthe-sur-le-Lac, Que. 

Some of her current clients include reigning Stanley Cup champion Andrei Vasilevskiy of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Anton Khudobin of the Dallas Stars.

"Just to see that people are happy to wear your paint job on their mask, it's a crazy feeling," she told Day 6.

That's a feeling fellow goalie-mask artist Steve Nash can relate to. He's the owner and operator of Eyecandy Air, in Woodbridge, Ont., which he runs with his assistant, Stephanie Pasquariello.

Nash has painted masks for the likes of former Stanley Cup champions Tim Thomas, Cam Ward and Jonathan Quick. He counts Winnipeg Jets' Connor Hellebuyck among his current clients.

Nash compares the feeling of seeing his designs being worn on the ice to a kid opening presents on Christmas morning.

"I really love hockey. I love the sport," he said. "It feels like a piece of you is in the game."

Artist Steve Nash is the creative mastermind behind Jonathan Quick's iconic 'battle armour' mask, pictured here. (Harry How/Getty Images)

Sketching designs

Like any art piece, mask designing and painting is a long process.

"For [an] NHL client, it can take [on average] about 30, 40 hours — to design the mask, to prepare the mask and to paint it," Marsolais said.

It starts in the sketch process. Usually, a goalie will send an idea to the artist of what they want on the mask, and the artist will incorporate it into their sketch.

There's no specific timeline for how long sketches take, though. Depending on a goalie's demands, it can take anywhere from a day to nearly two weeks to settle on a final design.

"All the goalies are different, so they don't want exactly the same thing," Marsolais said. "Some of them will just tell us, 'Oh, do whatever you want,' and others will be more precise.

Nash draws a comparison between his current NHL clients, Hellebuyck and the Philadelphia Flyers' Martin Jones.

"Martin Jones, he likes masks that are straight-up business, straight-up team-oriented with no personal lives on there," he said. "So I will set something up for him, he'll take a look at it, maybe tweak it one or two times, and he gives me the green light."

"Connor Hellebuyck? Totally different world. We have to go back and forth a dozen times with mask ideas and sketches until he's happy with it."

It's supposed to be fun. It's a sport.... It's cool, it's whimsical, it's low brow.- Artist Steve Nash

For those who do prefer more detailed designs, mask painters will try to incorporate the goalie's personal interests and values onto the mask.

One of Nash's most famous examples of this is Tim Thomas's all-white mask, which he won the Stanley Cup while wearing in 2011. 

"He's a patriot [of] the United States…. So he had some stuff [like American revolutionary motto] 'don't tread on me,'" he said. Nash also painted the U.S. flag and historical Gadsden flag rattlesnake on Thomas' iconic mask. 

Tim Thomas during the 2011 Stanley Cup final. The U.S. flag and the historical Gadsden flag rattlesnake can be seen on the back of his mask. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Pop culture is also a favourite among some goalies and fans.

"If I [post] something that [took] me two weeks and it's portraits, I will not get as [many] responses as if I painted, say, Toy Story or Batman or something like that," he said. 

Over the years, NHL goalie masks have featured pop culture figures such as Warner Bros.'s Marvin the MartianThe Simpsons' Sideshow Bob, and Casey Jones from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. 

Among Marsolais' clients, some of Anton Khudobin's masks feature Dobby from Harry Potter — though that's also in part because his nickname is "Dobby."

"We always try to get something that will represent the goalie," she said.

Dobby from the Harry Potter film series can be seen on the side of Anton 'Dobby' Khudobin's mask. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Painting the mask

Sketching designs is only half of the fun; the other half is actually putting the art onto the mask.

After sanding and applying base coat sealer to the mask, a mask painter can go one of a couple of ways in painting the mask.

For bigger art pieces or logos, for example, Nash will use a "glorified sticker cutter," called a plotter cutter, to cut the design into a piece of vinyl. He'll then place the vinyl outline on the mask and spray paint within it.

"Take the vinyl off and you've got a nice, crisp edge, and you have your logo on there," he said.

For smaller or finer designs like portraits though, it's more complex.

"I have to go in there and do traditional type art techniques just to get as close as I can to the way that image looks," he said. "There's no cheating that. You have to get in there with paintbrushes, but I also use airbrushes, pencils, razor blades, erasers, [and] many layers of paint."

Most goalie mask artists will use standard paint colours to paint a mask. But Nash says there's a variety of special effects painters can apply to masks, from hologram looks to glow-in-the-dark paint.

"You've got so many techniques that you can do now," he said. "It's just how crazy the customer wants to get."

There are even paints that can change colour depending on the temperature — and Marsolais has used it on a number of occasions.

"We did it last year with Andrei Vasilevskiy's mask," she said. "When he was at room temperature, the background of the mask was silver, and when he was going on the ice, it became black."

'Brings something new to the game'

Though he doesn't tend to go as wild in his paint jobs, Nash can see the appeal in tackling quirky, over-the-top designs.

"It's supposed to be fun. It's a sport," he said. "It's cool, it's whimsical, it's low brow."

Marsolais agrees.

"The goalie is always seen as somebody who is special, living in their bubble," she said. "So, you can see something expressed from their masks, [and] I think it brings something new to the game, something artistic, and I like that."


Written and produced by Mouhamad Rachini.

Hear full episodes of Day 6 on CBC Listen, our free audio streaming service.

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