It is the hockey mask seen round the world. It has stopped pucks and waded unwittingly into geopolitics. It is both fashionable and patriotic.
Nicole Hensley’s star-spangled goalie helmet has red, white and blue flag stripes to match the American flag. It has a fierce bald eagle and two big, buff USA shields over either ear.
And it has the Statue of Liberty. Bring Hensley your tired and poor. Tell them to leave hockey pucks behind.
The mask that was briefly tangled up in controversy is back in the clear after a “misunderstanding” between Olympic officials and Team USA officials was smoothed over Wednesday.
The International Olympic Committee bars equipment that bears any “form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise,” or any “kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” from athletic equipment or attire. That momentarily implicated Lady Liberty. A USA Today report this week suggested that the IOC and Team USA were discussing whether Hensley’s mask (and the similar mask of teammate Alex Rigsby) would be permitted or whether they crossed a political line. The masks were permitted, though, and the moment faded.
“I was surprised,” said helmet designer Sylvie Marsolais, founder of Montreal design firm Sylabrush. “I don’t see any political stuff related to the Statue of Liberty.”
Hensley had approached Marsolais with certain design components in mind. None seemed to break any Olympic rules, Marsolais said, so she drew up some sketches until she and Hensley found a design that worked.
It takes two weeks, from conception to completion, to create a goalie mask that can stand as a work of art and also stop a slap shot. Most goaltenders have an idea of what they want on a mask, designers say, but have no idea exactly what they want it to look like.
“These guys are not artists; they’re goalies,” said Frank Cipra, who until he stopped designing for the NHL supplied masks to about three-quarters of the league’s net-minders.
For the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, he painted the helmets for American goalies Rick DiPietro and Robert Esche.
DiPietro’s helmet included the American flag, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, an M-16 with a helmet sitting atop it in recognition of prisoners of war and a Huey helicopter, the kind American troops used in the Vietnam War. DiPietro’s father was a helicopter pilot in the conflict.
Esche’s mask featured a skull made to look like Uncle Sam and images of Kid Rock and Waylon Jennings.
Elements from both helmets would likely be barred in today’s Olympics, Cipra said.
“Back then when I did it for Rick DiPietro and Robert Esche, I just used common sense,” he said. “I never received any backlash with the mask. Now things have changed. Everybody’s got their fingers in with the masks, the IOC and the NHL. You don’t want to offend anyone, and I keep that in mind.”
Hensley told Marsolais she wanted an eagle and the Statue of Liberty on either side of head, plus the USA shields, plus blue stripes that faded to red down the length of the mask.
That’s a lot of components, Marsolais told her. The designer thinned down the lines, and painted on the eagle and Statue of Liberty in black and white to avoid conflicting colors. (“I think it’s just a great representation of our country,” Hensley said of Lady Liberty.)
The entire helmet has a matte finish, except for the shields, which are glossy.
“She told us that the mask was amazing,” Marsolais said. “That’s the most important thing: that the goalie likes the mask.”
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