The look of many NHL goalie masks has taken on a certain sameness in recent seasons. Somehow reminiscent of white-trash tattoos, black velvet paintings and mid-70's custom designed airbrush artwork on the side of vans (remember CARtoons?)
The knee-jerk reaction from most fans is "Oooooooh!" "Kewl!" Kind of like a group of people gathered around someone with a fresh tattoo. What else can you really say to a person who has branded themselves with a permanent piece of bad art? The shameless attempt to get attention somehow demands universal public approval (with the assurance that it was done strictly for "personal" reasons) and any deviation from the herd-mentality backslapping and congratulating elicits contempt.
Like with all these mediums that appeal to self-proclaimed mavericks, the same subject matter and themes show up time and again. Pop culture anti-heroes, unintentionally laughable images of horror and death and fierce caricatures of animals.
The only thing missing from the goalie masks are the nihilistic, self-loathing slogans. Instead of "Born to Lose," maybe a down-on-his-luck career backup can have his mask emblazoned with "Born to be Traded" or "FTN" (Fuck the NHL.)
While many of the renderings are gaudy and flat out ridiculous, they fit in with the image goalies have perpetuated for themselves over the years. A breed apart, wacked out individuals who have taken a few too many shots to the head, true eccentrics.
There was no goalie further out than Gilles Gratton. He was perhaps the first to customize his goalie mask with detailed artwork. He had a lion's head painted on when he played for the New York Rangers in the 1976-77 season. He probably would have been one of the first to adopt the elaborately designed masks of today. Until it became the thing to do, at which point he would have said to hell with it.
What started out as an interesting novelty has become the standard. Give me the clean, uncluttered masks of keepers like Chris Osgood. Timeless, minimalist, evocative of honour, pride and the determination to win. The sloppy sentimentality of these personalized helmets elicits images of well-paid and satisfied individuals preoccupied with trivial matters.
Just like the high-school kid who refuses to go along with the sheep who all dress in a similarly freakish manner to highlight themselves as "different," the goalies who don't adorn their masks are now the real rebels.
I'll admit I've praised them as well (goalie masks, not tattoos.) There is something in the collective weirdness of these out of place pieces of glorified graffiti. Maybe it's a conscious decision to grow the fan-base in the southern U.S. where NASCAR and professional wrestling are often mentioned as far more successful rivals to the NHL. Speaking of NASCAR, this example has got to be a celebration of kitsch and an attempt to be "so bad it's good."
Oddly enough, just as the trend has become popular, the demographic those kinds of images are most associated with is being priced out of attending live NHL games. Of course, they can still buy merchandise and there may even be a few sops to them along the way.
Word is that a video montage is being prepared to air before the NHL All-Star game. A group of NHL goalies heads out while wearing their helmets, stick-on tattoos, big nasty belt buckles and t-shirts with reprints of the top selling black velvet masterpieces currently being flogged from the trunks of cars in the southern U.S.
They hop on Harleys and take a cross-country trek, stopping off at traveling carnival midways, head shops, biker conventions and new-age communes. They finally roll into Atlanta on January 27th, 2008, just in time for the all-star game. Reeling from the mind-altering substances they've consumed and accompanied by the human detritus they've picked up along the way, they stumble into the arena as Born to be Wild blares in the background.