When Philadelphia Flyers goalie Robert Esche sees teammates signing autographs for kids, he thinks about how athletes are widely viewed as heroes.
Then he thinks about his kid brother, Henry, and he remembers the real heroes.
Henry Esche is 22. He enlisted in the Marines five years ago. In the weeks after Sept. 11 and the terrorist attacks on the United States, he was shipped to Afghanistan to construct temporary bases for U.S. troops. He has moved on to other assignments: Germany, the Philippines, Okinawa, sometimes in dangerous places, always on his brother's mind.
And now on his mask, too.
As a tribute to his brother, Robert Esche ordered a new mask decorated with patriotic messages. The Statue of Liberty on one side, a bald eagle and the words "God Bless America" across the top, the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima across the bottom, and a portrait of Sgt. Henry Esche in his dress blue uniform on the other side.
"He's a great kid," Robert Esche said, referring to his brother. "He played hockey. He was a defenseman. He quit after a few years and then he surprised us when he jumped into the Marines at 17. He came up with the idea the year before he went in. I was away playing hockey. His dream wasn't to be a Marine. I didn't believe he would stick."
Henry Esche stuck.
He moved from boot camp in Camp Lejeune, N.C., to other bases and then into harm's way in a dangerous world. There were long stretches of time when he was unable to communicate with his family, and for Robert Esche, there was the frustration of being unable to stand up for his little brother.
That's how brothers are. If Henry got punched in the nose, Robert had better be the one doing the punching.
"I was older and little bigger," Robert said. "I got the upper hand a few times."
As America went to war in Iraq last month, Robert Esche lost contact with his brother. "We e-mail each other back and forth," Esche said. "There was a time when he didn't e-mail me back and I didn't know where he was."
There was natural anxiety until the Esche family learned Henry was in Okinawa, safe at least for the time being. "He was a little bummed that he wasn't over in Iraq," Robert said.
"He chose to do this, to defend all of us. It puts everything in perspective. The ones who have it tough are the ones over there. What a tough life that is. There's nothing you can say or do. You try to put it out of your mind and block it out. It's a tough thing to deal with."
Esche reflected on the situation and searched for a way to support his brother, to somehow make a statement. The mask seemed a good solution. Painter Tony Jarrett in North Carolina designed it for Esche.
When goalies first used masks, they were stark, almost bleak affairs. Then the netminders became more creative. Most masks now are decorated with personal statements.
Hall of Fame goalie Gerry Cheevers had one of the more innovative, marking his mask with stitch marks where it stopped pucks that would otherwise have hit his face. Esche's mask carries a more patriotic message.
"It was my idea and our trainer's idea," the goalie said. "I wanted to put my brother on it. I've always been behind everything he's done. At times like this, it's nice to realize who the real heroes are, cops, firefighters, Marines. I'm extremely proud of him. He's one of my heroes."
The mask arrived days before the Flyers opened the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Esche had to return it because the cage wasn't right. Goalies are finicky about every detail so it needed to be fine tuned.
Esche laughed about how he was worried about a piece of hockey equipment with everything else going on in the world.
But he earned the right to do that, sharing the NHL award for fewest goals allowed this season with teammate Roman Cechmanek. In 29 games, he had two shutouts and a 2.21 goals against average.
His new mask has a hefty heritage to follow.
"The old one had Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. on it," Robert Esche said.