Twelve players, twelve sticks, twelve pairs of skates, ten helmets, two masks. The equipment breakdown is the same no matter what team you play for, but it’s undeniable that the coolest piece of equipment is worn by the goaltender.
Goalie mask evolution has come a long way, but the premise remains roughly the same; a piece of fiberglass used to protect the head from injury. Jacques Plante donned the first piece of contoured fiberglass in 1959, with a mask/cage combination appearing in the early 1970’s. A lot can change in approximately 53 years. One notable change is the artistic style, and individual goalie influence that you now see each and every season.
While they have incredible talents on the ice, for most goaltenders, being artistic isn’t necessarily part of the job description. Although they lend a huge hand in the design process, it is their mask after all, most goalies leave the heavy painting to a professional. But before the painting even occurs, the mask itself needs to be made. While no two goalies are alike, neither is the mask that protects them.
Pro’s Choice, located in Middleton, MA has been in the mask making business for over 20 years. Partnering with Vaughn Hockey two years ago, the talents of head designer Dom Malerba can be seen between the pipes at NHL and minor league arenas around the world. With a resume that holds the masks of Bruins Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, Blue Jackets Steve Mason, Blues Brian Elliot, Coyotes Mike Smith, Sharks Antti Niemi and Thomas Greiss, and Oilers Nikolai Khabibulin, the process from conception to completion is a surprisingly short one. Ranging from just 2-3 days for the mask, the painting process is an entirely different story.
Learning to become one of the best mask creators in the business isn’t a skill perfected overnight, nor one initially planned on as a career path; but a hobby in his garage, turned into something much more. After a trip to Canada to be molded still left him without a mask, Malerba took matters into his own glove and blocker in 1986.
“I was young, just fascinated,” commented Malerba. “I thought, gee I’d like to try that someday, so I started fooling around with it.”
Bridging the gap between hobby and career came about two years later in 1988. A Lynnfield, Massachusetts native, Malerba lived just around the corner from Boston Bruins goaltender Andy Moog. Amazing opportunities don’t skate by too often, but once in awhile they do, and that’s just what happened when Malerba created a mask for Moog.
“That was the break for me.” With an easy going demeanor and genuine excitement for his craft, it’s easy to see why Malerba has come close to virtually shutting out his competition in the mask making business for so many years.
Craftsmanship is the key component in making Pro’s Choice masks a cut above the rest. It isn’t just the notion that every goalie is different because of their playing style, it goes right down to DNA, every goaltender has different physical attributes and the masks cater to individuality. Not everyone is made in small, medium and large and although a player could certainly skate by with those measurements when they’re young, it becomes a bit less realistic once they hit higher more competitive levels of the game.
The custom made masks that Malerba creates aren’t just about comfort but ultimately safety as well. With pucks flying at record breaking speeds, the more cushioning and molding a mask has, the less space to move around. While bobbleheads are a welcomed treat often handed out at games, they aren’t ideal when it comes to the real life on ice version. A custom fitted mask takes away the extra space, essentially becoming an extension of a goaltenders head and the risk of concussion decreases.
“We’ve had no concussed goalies,” a statistic that is surely welcomed by the goaltending elite that wear Malerba’s masks.
Custom fitting a mask begins with torturing the goalie, not really, but it’s an awkward experience to endure and the only step in the process that a goaltender needs to be present for. Laying down on a mat or table, the face, excluding the mouth is covered with saran wrap, then covered with a plaster mixture. Next, the goalie is required to lay still for 10-15 minutes while the mold dries. Malerba has spent a lot of time travelling to mold various goalies, it’s a step in the process that doesn’t necessarily need to be done in his work space, a locker room or hotel room floor works just fine.
After the initial mold is made the real work begins, it’s then plugged and poured, then it takes to the cinder wheel where the design of the mask takes shape. The mask itself is clay layered with fiberglass and kevlar, yes, masks are made of the same material as bullet proof vests.Top of the line materials such as epoxy resin are used, instead of the cheaper polyester version.
“I can’t have goalie masks breaking,” confident in his product, Malerba often jokes with younger clients. “I’ll tell them, if you can break it, you’ll get a free mask,” laughs Malerba. “I’ve seen a lot of headbangs off the table, no cracks.”
Materials are vastly important in the longevity of a mask. Many masks on the market feature a foam that’s almost equivalent in hardness to the pucks they’re put in place to stop. Instead, a different more flexible new foam, is molded to a players head, allowing for a custom fit. Weighing in around 3 lbs once completed, the mask also features hand sewn straps and a cage. With 5 or 6 cages to choose from, many of them are designed by Malerba. Just like the masks themselves, the cages are unique and often come in stainless steel, or feature gold plating. The off-season for hockey, is the on-season for Pro’s Choice and Malerba always has at least 3 masks going at a time. Perhaps the one time of year that a Canadien, Bruin and Canuck can all share a room happily (or their masks can).
For a goalie, a mask is the most important piece of equipment and Malerba has cornered the market on making the ice a safer place, one mask at a time. Creating a mask isn’t as clean and simple as a fresh sheet of ice; it’s the ice after the 1st, 2nd, even 3rd period. The ice that has been marred with sweat and love for the game. Pro’s Choice is a player showcasing skill, passion and a continued effort to ensure a safe environment throughout each and every period of a goaltenders career. Bantam, squirt, Jr, or Stanley Cup champion; it won’t matter the level of goalie you are, Pro’s Choice will ensure you’ll look like a pro between the pipes.
For photos from a day at Pro’s Choice, check out the gallery! Please also visit the Pro’s Choice website…